Review of ESPN’s World Cup TV Coverage After Week 1

When ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup began on opening day, June 12, my main thought was that the producers for its soccer coverage must have been counting down the days until the NBA Finals and US Open were over.

At first, the focus on two traditional American sports seemed to get in the way of its World Cup coverage. Two of the opening four games were relegated to ESPN2. Unfortunately, outside of the games themselves and the World Cup coverage, ESPN’s attention to the World Cup seemed more like an afterthought. “We saw some shocks yesterday, but nothing shocked us like what happened in Miami last night…” was one of the opening lines from SportsCenter before they drifted into discussion of the NBA. Even last weekend, SportsCenter’s morning coverage focused a large part on the 20 years since the OJ Simpson highway chase. ESPN isn’t ignoring soccer, by any means, but the sports network is trying to placate the traditional American sports fan.

The best and most frustrating example of this was ESPN’s coverage of the USA against Ghana game. The coverage went from the highs of watching the USA team record a late win against Ghana to the lows of ESPN hurrying along its post-match coverage so it could lead into a Boston Red Sox baseball game. To make matters even worse, who was the baseball announcer that greeted surprised soccer viewers? None other than Dave O’Brien.

Yes, ESPN’s World Cup coverage continued immediately after the US-Ghana game on ESPNEWS, but ESPN instantly lost the momentum, excitement and I’m sure a large percentage of viewers by switching channels after such a historic win for the US team. The transition was sloppy, and would have been better if the baseball game was switched to ESPNEWS instead unless ESPN was contracted to show the MLB game on the main network.

During a typical day’s coverage of the World Cup on ESPN, the practice of switching from one ESPN channel to another and back again has become tiresome — whether it’s for World Cup Tonight, Last Call or the games themselves. That’s one significant advantage that Univision has. Once you turn on their channel, you know that all of its World Cup content can be found in one place without reaching for the remote control.

ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is a perfect reminder of what sports coverage is like when you’re not watching a dedicated 24/7 soccer channel — like FOX Soccer was, and what GolTV tries to be. Even during a World Cup, soccer is not the number one priority for ESPN. The “Worldwide leader in sports” is just that, a sports network. And a mainstream sports network at that where soccer, outside of the World Cup, is largely ignored.

When ESPN does feature the World Cup, and there’s no doubt that ESPN is giving the tournament a lot of airtime, the broadcasts of the world’s most popular sporting tournament have been — for the most part — wonderful to watch.

In the commentator booths, ESPN has a good blend of veteran soccer announcers with opinionated or observant co-commentators. Jon Champion has been a particular high point during the coverage. Adrian Healey has been fair, but relies too much on cliches (talking about Belgium chocolate in one of his goal calls after Belgium scored against Algeria, as one example). Derek Rae has been a breath of fresh air, and deserves to be calling higher profile games. Ian Darke is Ian Darke. He was superb in the way that he called the USA goals against Ghana, but can be too much of an American cheerleader for my liking instead of trying to be impartial. But there’s no doubt that he has the enthusiasm and energy in his voice that translates better with an American audience than Martin Tyler.

Despite the positives, many of ESPN’s English commentators use their knowledge of English football as a crutch at times. I’ve lost count of the number of times that the commentators will drop in a reference of what English club a World Cup footballer plays for. Instead, I’d like to see the commentators break out of their comfort zone and share some insight regarding players that isn’t so English soccer-centric. On that note, Jon Champion must have left some US viewers perplexed when he talked about treacle during the Germany-Portugal game. The Anglophile viewer is no longer the target audience.

While the work in the commentator booth has been strong, the coverage and analysis from the World Cup studio in Brazil has been getting better. During the first couple of nights of coverage, ESPN debutante Lynsey Hipgrave seemed low on confidence and had a tough time adapting to the requirements. In ESPN’s Last Call segments, she didn’t moderate as forcefully as she could have, and allowed the more vocal Taylor Twellman and Michael Ballack to “control” the show. As a result, the men sitting around the table ended up talking over one another, and the viewer was left stranded. Since then, Hipgrave has found her feet and the Last Call discussions seem more subdued and interesting to watch and listen to, which is a positive sign. I love the whole concept of the show, which breaks new ground for soccer analysis and production.

The analysis in the studio has been strong throughout the first week of the tournament. Ruud van Nistelrooy has been a particular strongpoint, as is Santiago Solari and Michael Ballack. Gilberto Silva has been okay but not enlightening.

Via satellite, analyst Landon Donovan’s addition to the ESPN World Cup team has been puzzling. While ESPN’s ability to acquire him should be congratulated, I’m still waiting for Donovan to share any observation or wisdom of quality. He’s still too connected to the US team, with his friends being team members, to be critical. And the analysis he’s providing is nothing that Taylor Twellman or Alexi Lalas cannot provide. While it’s good for ESPN to have him “up their sleeve,” so far he’s been a waste of air-time other than the very first interview he gave with Mike Tirico, which was over a week ago.

My only complaint thus far regarding the studio coverage was the pairing of Roberto Martinez and Alexi Lalas for the England-Uruguay game. You had two extremes. On one hand, you had pundit Alexi Lalas who has a track record of being extremely negative about anything related to the England national team. And then on the other extreme you had a manager of a team who wasn’t going to be critical about England or his own Everton players on the pitch (Jagielka, Baines and Barkley). I had wished that ESPN would have used someone in the middle who would have been more objective — someone like Craig Burley.

As the World Cup unfolds, ESPN’s coverage has been getting better. There’s still room for improvement, and ESPN still appear to be trying to determine what talent works best with one another for which games. I don’t believe we’ve seen the best out of them yet, but the coverage is still exceptional and better than other broadcasters abroad. Apart from a few exceptions, I’m still waiting for ESPN to hit their World Cup coverage “out of the park,” but I’m confident we’ll see some “home runs” in the not too distant future.

52 thoughts on “Review of ESPN’s World Cup TV Coverage After Week 1”

  1. Why does every writer on this site seem to try their hardest not to say how bad and overused Alexi Lalas has been?

    Other than that (and the odd co-commentating gig for Twellman) great coverage by ESPN for me.

    1. Agreed, Lalas is the weakest analyst they have but the one they use the most. Martinez is IMO the best analyst they have and should be their primary guy. Ballack has certainly got better since the last world cup. The way van Nistelrooy stares blankly at the camera is unnerving, he’s like a dutch Warren Barton.

  2. It’s kind of corny but I enjoy what ESPN (and VW) has done on the “relationship” between Ballack and Lalas. It’s funny.

    On one of the last calls, I noticed Ballack having a “grin” as in “yup that’s Lalas, are you kidding me type” when Lalas was talking about something.

    I do like Roberto Martinez but this article is correct that he seems to be careful and choose his words when it comes to England and any players from Everton, but it’s understandable him being careful when taking about Everton players as he’ll have to deal with them when the EPL season starts again.

    Overall since the 2010 WC ESPN has been very good. They weren’t prior to that.

    Fox having the 2018 and 2020 WC will be of concern. It was posted somewhere that Telemundo will have the Spanish Language rights, if correct that would mean Andres Cantor will be doing the games again, that’s good.

  3. Where the hell is Craig Burley anyway? Was his Scottish accent deemed too indecipherable? His candidness would have offset some of the ‘stay within the boundaries’ comments. Ian Darke is fantastic commentating non-US games. I’m sure he’s symphony to American ears but does overdo the pro-American angle to those who have heard him commentate other games. The studio shows have been fine. Ballack is typically stoic as usual. Martinez is the professor and even Lalas has been ok. I ordered BEIN Sports to watch their programming but have barely watched it. ESPN must be doing something right to keep my attention. Well done.

  4. To me ESPN’s coverage seems almost incidental. They haven’t provided any context to the matches by informing us more about the national teams in the tournament.

    As for the analysts, Lalas continues to be poor, Twellman has failed to impress, Ballack is still not that good. Van Nistelrooy has been quite good and a welcome addition.

    Maybe it will get better when the knockout stage begins. We can hope.

    1. A bit harsh aren’t you. Want else do you want? Back stories are boring and take away from the matches. Besides, this tournament, with the upsets, great goals and shock failures has sold itself.
      I credit ESPN for the diversity in the analysts…German, Argentine, Spaniard, Dutch etc. but an African analyst would have been insightful too.
      One complaint…the repeated resumes/photo shots aren’t necessary anymore.

    1. And if the FA could pry him away from Everton, IMO an excellent England Manager. The team would be creative and have passion under him.

      Don’t see it happening. Like so many Football Associations, run by entrenched old days people.

  5. The coverage has settled down after a rough start. World Cup tonight was out of control at the start with too many pundits talking over one another, particularly the irritating Twellman who makes Lalas seem interesting by comparison. Btw, I don’t need to constantly see pictures of Lalas circa 1994.

    Last call is a bit hit and miss for me but is getting better. It’s actually too short on analysis and match highlights, and too long on fluff like twitter updates, and those bloody stories they like to tell.

    Overall though it’s good stuff. We will remember it fondly when fox get their hands on it and ruin it. It will be worse than 2006.

    Jon Champion has been superb. I’m enjoying him more than Ian Darke.
    I’m also enjoying Mike Tiricco. Is there a better all-rounder anchor in American sports television? Keeps the show moving along and let’s the experts do their thing.

    1. Have been a fan of Tricco for a long time. Whether it’s the World Cup, hosting Wimbledon coverage or calling NFL/NBA games – he’s one of a few sports all-rounders who does a great job no matter what he’s covering. As you said Smokey, he keeps the coverage & the panel moving, but he’s also well-informed which helps achieve the first two things.

      About the scheduling, the problem is more with how tightly ESPN is trying to schedule things. The thing all broadcasters need to remember is that a football match will generally go for 1hr 50/55mins (from kick-off to full-time, including half-time). If you’re scheduling games to fit in a two hour slot, that doesn’t leave much time for post-match analysis if you need to rush off to coverage of something else straight after.

      About the US game leading into the MLB game, ESPN had to go to it since:
      a) ESPN2 were covering a NCAA College World Series match, meaning the MLB game couldn’t start there
      b) ESPNEWS is in significantly less homes than ESPN/ESPN2, so you’re denying a significant percentage of viewers the opportunity to see the start of the MLB game
      b1) Continuing from the last point, MLB is contractually required to air on ESPN or ESPN2 due to that factor & the truckload of cash ESPN pays to show MLB
      c) It’s less likely to happen now due to the beginning of a new MLB broadcast agreement, but ESPN’s broadcast of Monday/Wednesday Night Baseball can be subject to local blackouts in the areas of the teams involved (to encourage viewers to watch the local regional sports networks coverage). If that was the case on Monday night, the blackout would have needed to apply from 8pm (when the coverage was scheduled to start) – cutting off any extra post-match coverage.

      In saying all of that, what ESPN could have done (if it was possible) would be to ask the MLB & the teams involved to start the game at say 8:20pm/8:25pm ET instead of 8:10pm ET. This would allowed ESPN to air the post-match analysis they showed on ESPNEWS to air on the main network while also fulfilling their MLB contractual requirements

  6. Enjoying the coverage. Not liking how ESPN is shying away from criticizing referees. It was almost 20 minutes after the game ended when they showed a replay of the PK controversy from the Argentina/Iran match.

    Having the College World Series simultaneously is making it difficult on ESPN, which is why we’re getting the channel changes.

    Derek Rae has always been fantastic, so no surprise.

    I do wonder how many games are getting called off the tube?

    1. I suspect more than a few games are being called from the international broadcast centre, but even when the announcers are at the match, it seems that they are a long way from the action and have to rely on the video feed

  7. Oh I almost forgot, it seems that ESPN has caught Rob Stone disease. It’s Kick Off, not Kick. If I have to hear “We’ll be back after the break with the 2nd half kick” one more time, I’ll scream.

  8. Some excellent points made here. I haven’t had a lot of extra time to watch the post match analysis or the extra programming shows (like Last Call or World Cup Tonight), but wish I could watch more of it, at least to get some idea of what it’s like.

    I generally do not like lalas. He’s far to negative and his mantra is all about “hard work.” If a team lost, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, if they won then it’s all about how hard they worked. There is something to be said for teamwork, but there are so many other more nuanced ways to point this out. The European former players get this idea and really do try to put it out there, unfortunately, there are far too many times that they are interrupted. The interruptions are way too many and too often including commercials, the host cutting in, or, the worst of all, lalas opening his mouth.
    I will say that I have really enjoyed van Nistelrooy. While most of his body language and delivery is a little wooden, his insights are excellent and he has a great tactical understanding of the game. He certainly has a future as a pundit if he can keep working on it.

      1. I actually think she is doing a good job, I wish they would let her talk more, on BT sport she is just as knowledgeable as Rebecca Lowe.


        1. Hipgrave is good on BT, but for some reason she hasn’t demonstrated how good she is in her World Cup appearances so far. I can’t put my finger on why it feels like that, but it’s just a general feeling I’ve been getting

    1. Agree for the most part, but imo Tirico definitely goes in the ugly column. I can’t believe I am saying this..but Tirico almost makes Lalas sound good.

    1. Hey, we’re just a bunch of guys hanging out the cabana talking football…except for the suits and fake fruit bowl.

  9. The problem with ESPN is that they have too much going on to dedicate the proper amount of time. It’s the same with NBC and the EPL. When FSC had the rights it was 24hours soccer. Unfortunately, their coverage just continued to get worse, culminating with Gus. So, do we want a network with 24hour coverage or a couple of hours of great coverage? Maybe Bein is the answer.

  10. Not having the USA games on ABC for the whole nation to see is a disgrace. It offends me also that NASCAR is more of a priority to show on the weekend than the World Cup on ABC.

    I’m not too impressed with the coverage. It’s rushed and as discussed not having a dedicated channel to the cup dilutes it. The most annoying aspect of the commentary is the constant advertising of upcoming games. It never ends.

    1. 1) This World Cup has been tricky in regards to an opportunity being available to show Team USA on ABC. Two out of their three group games have been on weekdays which immediately rules ABC out due to either local news on the Eastern/Central time-zones (Ghana) or local programming (for their game against Germany).

      While today’s game against Portugal would not only have the same local news problem as the Ghana game would have, but it would play havoc with ABC’s Primetime schedule. This is because Primetime begins at 7pm on Sunday’s & the USA goes from 6pm – 8pm ET. Meaning if ABC were to show the game, it leaves them with a problem of an hour of Primetime that would need to be pre-empted in the Eastern time-zone but would still need to air in the rest of the country.

      In an ideal world, all of Team USA’s games should be on ABC but we don’t live in an ideal world.

      2) I agree that some of the coverage has been rushed (especially post-game analysis) but it hasn’t been too bad. When ESPN have the time available (eg; World Cup Tonight), that’s when they do a solid job in covering the games. I doubt having a 24/7 World Cup channel would be the fix to the problem, since there’s only so much you can do.

      3) Everybody hates the constant promotion/cross-promotion as much as you do – especially during the commentary itself!

      1. Only in the USA could national team games not be shown on a free to air channel in order not to disrupt a channels precious primetime schedule. There’s no way that would happen in any other country. Wouldn’t want to disrupt some crap reality tv show.

        I remember back in 1998 they showed all their games on ABC, even in the middle of the day. It’s funny how they’ve regressed since then. If they can show some dodgy game like Algeria and South Korea on ABC then they should go all out and show the U.S. games.

        Little things like that are why soccer still isn’t where it needs to be in this country. After all they show the Olympics and disrupt their precious programming. Why would it be too hard for just a few games of soccer?

        1. But airing games in the middle of the day (like ABC has been doing on weekends) is a completely separate argument to a game which kicks-off at 6pm ET for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. The Olympics is also another argument since NBC gets MASSIVE ratings in Primetime, they can justify ripping up the normal schedule for a fortnight

          I completely agree with you it’s wrong, just explaining the reasons why ABC didn’t air the game

  11. “ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is a perfect reminder of what sports coverage is like when you’re not watching a dedicated 24/7 soccer channel — like FOX Soccer was”


  12. Just so you know, live sporting events will always take precedence over studio shows. That’s why ESPN is transitioning to live sports in a rush.

    The same thing happened when a baseball game finished up late and they would immediately switch to a soccer game that had been temporarily on ESPN News.

  13. The coverage of the games and the commentary is excellent, no matter which channel ESPN uses. The studio analysis is awful, worse than the last world cup, and that was awful too! The roundtable discussion on World Cup Tonight is an embarrassment. I am now watching the Bein Sports show each night which is much better.

    1. Wow, seriously? The game commentary is no where near excellent. In fact it’s down right boring (so is mls commentary, so no surprise here). I regularly turn to the spanish channel just to feel some excitment. At least we agree on the studio commentary. Mike Tirico.. I never thought some one could make Alexi sound good.. the day has arrived smh. Totally agree, Bein is the way to go.

  14. dude, u complain too much! They are doing an awesome job covering this! I dont care what channel they put it on! Even if there was the fictional Espn 8 (remember Dodgeball Movie), I’d Watch it there. They are showing it, they are doing what they need to. Good job ESPN!

  15. I was amazed at ESPN’s coverage of the WC today when Mike Tirico stepped up to the board to show possible scenarios for the US on their way to the cup. Ballack was standing to the left and the look on his face was nothing short of “is this really happening” and the thought of Ballack regretting this ESPN gig, seemed obvious. (Being referred to as Michael Vick on Monday night by Tirico can’t help matters) The US has yet to play the biggest game of their life and ESPN is well beyond that. Lalas is indeed already in LaLa Land. So is Tirico. Show the action and don’t waste our time reading tea leaves.

  16. Fifa World Cup announcers keep telling the scores of other games I’m about to watch. Give us a heads up please so we can mute or plug our ears. Ghana and Portugal is ruined for me because of, “and Ghana’s just scored”. Think, consider, and change to.. and in the Ghana – Portugal match there has been a development…(spoiler here). It’s professional football, how about professional commentary?

    1. The developments of the Ghana-Portugal match were directly related to the USA-Germany match. They would be reported in any country broadcasting the game.

      Likely on Univision too if you understood Spanish.

      1. I don’t care that the Ghana – Portugal scores were reported. I object to the manner of blurting it out that leaves no chance for the me the keeper to shut the info from my earholes. All I ask is that there is a built in pause that allows me to stop the info from ruining an unwatched match.

      2. No me importa que los Ghana – se informan las puntuaciones de Portugal. Me opongo a la forma de impulsivamente lo que no deja ninguna oportunidad para que el yo el guardián de cerrar la información de mis agujeros de oído. Lo único que pido es que no hay una construida en la pausa que me permite detener la info de arruinar un partido no se ha visto.

  17. I think it’s a disgrace that almost all of our commentators are British. Yeah, I can just imagine how the other nations are doing it – Mexico has probably hired all Colombian commentators. Seriously, it makes sense for a game like Colombia vs. Uruguay to be covered by two UK guys? The clear sense of superiority and entitlement on the other side of the pond keeps coming through. I also don’t think Champion should have been involved in any Uruguayan match after he was chastised publicly by ESPN last year for calling Suarez a cheat. Clearly the guy is still projecting his personal opinions about Suarez at the last world cup – opinions not shared by all of us. Despite the way the Lalas and the British commentators have tried to make it seem, there is not universal condemnation of Suarez. I notice none of these Brits feels it’s worth mentioning that a year or so ago in Premier League a biter got away with a yellow card. Uruguay’s coach even spoke out on how it was an uproar from “people speaking in English” that caused an excessive penalty. Champion told us that the country of Uruguay and the coach were in some isolated dream land, acting as if they thought no penalty was justified, and acting as if he didn’t know that all of South America is questioning only its harshness. In fact, Chiellini, the man bitten, blogged that it was too harsh a penalty. We’re being led along by the nose by the ‘civilized’ nations who apparently think a player deliberately breaking an opponent’s nose is worth less punishment than a far more harmless bite. (Because that’s FIFA’s record – a break and a concussion got lesser penalties.)

  18. Oh, and as an aside, I’m sick of watching a game with US vs. anyone, where the commentator spends the whole time worrying about how the US can possibly 1. score, 2. hold on to its tie, 3. hold on to its lead. Seriously? Can it be considered for just one minute that if we have the lead, maybe the OTHER team should wonder how the hell it’s going to score twice to beat us???

  19. When I used to watch Italian Futbol before Fox gave it away, the commentary gave much more play-by-play and much more knowledgeable commentary about the players. We know the English don’t care about anything but the Premier League. We also seriously do have Americans who know their stuff. It’s ridiculous that we don’t get to see American commentators on at least US games.

  20. Uruguay and Colombia came into the stadium looking like “the Roundheads and the Cavaliers.” ’nuff said?

  21. Yes, Lalas is a minor league player commenting on the play of world superstars. I expect Fox will do stuff like pay Klinsman whatever he needs to show up and comment the historic German final for America.

    And here’s a suggestion for those Limey commentators who “don’t know who to root for”: take the day off. No one wants your verbal wanking.

    On a scale of one to ten I rate ES Pi Ns coverage of this world cup inadequate. They don’t even rate. Fail.

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