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.

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