In 2005, ABC/ESPN paid just $100 million for the English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups (as well as 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups). That fee was dwarfed in 2011 when FOX paid $425 million to win the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments.
Based on what ABC/ESPN got out of the last two World Cups, I would say it’s money well spent.
While ESPN says goodbye to its last World Cup for a minimum of 12 years, they have to be congratulated for the hard work and benchmarks they’ve achieved.
Here are some of our highs and lows of ESPN’s World Cup 2014 broadcast:
1. Last Call
ESPN’s groundbreaking Last Call was a breath of fresh air. The nightly show was a relaxing and informative discussion show that often featured plenty of friendly and interesting debates with the pundits gathered around the table.
The relaxed manner of the show was jovial at times, and broke away from the typical stuffy studio shows that we expect to see on television.
2. Roberto Martinez
The fact that ESPN continues to be able to secure the talent of Roberto Martinez with each major tournament is a huge coup for the American broadcaster.
Martinez is a perfectionist in everything he does. He’s an excellent communicator. He almost always adds observations and pieces of wisdom that are enlightening. And his calmness and effervescent personality in front of the TV camera is a joy to watch.
3. Tactics board
Instead of the jumbo-sized board that FOX Sports uses for its Champions League coverage, ESPN’s flat-screen tactics board was used when needed and was often a high point of the analysis that the ESPN talent provided.
Taylor Twellman, Alexi Lalas and Roberto Martinez, in particular, were highlights.
4. The partnership of Jon Champion and Stewart Robson
Before this World Cup, we surprisingly didn’t have the opportunity to listen to Jon Champion and Stewart Robson in the same commentary booth that often for Premier League matches. However, the partnership of Champion and Robson at the FIFA World Cup was one of the high points.
Although a little too scripted at times, Jon Champion was superb overall. His ability to “call it as he sees it” combined with Robson’s forthrightness was refreshing to hear. There was no pussyfooting in their commentaries. It was straight to the point, time after time again.
Derek Rae and Daniel Mann were two other commentary highlights. Both were model professionals.
5. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
It was so refreshing to listen to an intelligent and well-spoken former footballer who seemed to be such a natural in front of the TV camera.
While the “we” in his Dutch analysis was grating at times, he was always informative to listen to, and did a stellar job at fusing his insights as a former professional footballer into words that were enlightening for viewers to hear.
6. Traumatic brain injuries
ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman has been a vocal critic of FIFA’s ignorance regarding the issue of traumatic brain injuries in soccer caused by concussions and repeated hits to the head.
While this World Cup has provided several unfortunate examples of footballers continuing to play during games only minutes after being concussed, Twellman has continued to bring to light how backwards FIFA’s policies are.
Notably, the foreign press continue to ignore the matter, but ESPN and Twellman should be congratulated for continuing to beat the drum. The issue has to be resolved soon before someone gets seriously injured.
1. Steve McManaman
After 45 minutes of one of the most stunning World Cup games in the history of the competition, the TV cameras zoomed in on Ian Darke and Steve McManaman. Germany had absolutely decimated Brazil 5-0 in the first half. Darke then asked his colleague a perfectly normal and valid question, “How would you explain what happened to Brazil in the first 45 minutes?”
McManaman’s answer was stunning. Stunningly poor.
As a co-commentator, Macca’s job is to be an expert, and to add analysis and insight that informs the TV viewer.
McManaman’s response was straight out of the Warren Barton bag of cliches.
The former Real Madrid and Liverpool player uttered a number of vagaries, talking about how the defense had lost its shape, etcetera. But there was no decisive analysis by McManaman. There was no blaming individual players or specific tactics. There was no insight.
Whether that was due to incompetence or a former footballer being unwilling to criticize fellow professionals, we don’t know. But I couldn’t believe how weak his response was.
This isn’t the first time that McManaman has failed to deliver. In fact, the novelty factor of being chummy with Ian Darke has worn off. He’s an excellent conversationalist, and wears his heart on his sleeve, but if you actually listen to what he offers, it’s nothing of real value.
I respect him as an accomplished footballer, and an all-around nice person. But having McManaman as a co-commentator was certainly a weakness for ESPN. While Taylor Twellman certainly has his critics, a combination of Darke and Twellman in the final would have been better.
2. Gilberto Silva
While there’s no doubt that Gilberto was a brilliant midfielder for Brazil and Arsenal, he was completely out of his depth as a pundit.
Silva’s English was so poor that it made him difficult to understand at times. But even when you were able to understand his broken English, what he said was incredibly basic. His English vocabulary didn’t allow him to be able to explain himself in the language that was required to describe the collapse of Brazil. Instead, what you heard were answers along the lines of “Brazil was not so good” and “We have to try harder.”
Silva didn’t look comfortable on the set either, which may have been a result of the language barrier being a difficult hurdle to overcome.
His colleague, Brazilian reporter Rubens Pozzi, meanwhile was far more insightful, had a better on-screen presence and showed that he could be quite animated or composed given the topic, as opposed to the static Gilberto.
3. Virtual Presenter technology
ESPN didn’t use the technology until the latter rounds of the tournament, and possibly for good reason. ESPN’s Virtual Presenter technology virtually placed ESPN soccer pundits on to the field so they could “stand” next to players on the pitch, to give a different perspective on the analysis, and to share their wisdom. However, the execution of the technology just didn’t add anything. Instead, it looked more like a scene from the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with the pundits shrunken in size.
4. Soccer Gods
ESPN’s coverage has been stellar in so many ways, but the usage by some of its presenters and analysts of the term “soccer gods” is lazy. There are no soccer gods. There never has been and there never will be. Things happen, but it has nothing to do with a “soccer god.” The usage of the term is becoming a cliche, something which ESPN normally tries to avoid.
Overall, congratulations once again to ESPN for another wonderful World Cup broadcast. FOX will now be the rights holder in the United States for the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019, as well as the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and 2022. ESPN has set the bar extremely high. Let’s hope that FOX pays attention and takes inspiration from all of the things that ESPN has done so well.