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ESPN provides FOX Sports a blueprint for World Cup 2018

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Hopes were high for ESPN’s coverage of the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament as the network has sent close to twenty commentators and reporters to France for the finals. Unlike FOX Sports, whose coverage of the Copa America has been focused around LA-based commentators, US-oriented storylines and light-hearted programming, ESPN has taken a serious “newsy” approach which has served viewers well since soccer itself unfortunately hasn’t been the only storyline at these finals.

Given the events on the ground in France involving hooliganism and the need for on-site reporters with news gathering capability, ESPN is providing a strong example to FOX Sports as to the types of resources they must deploy on the ground to properly cover what may prove to be a controversial 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Case in point, Steve Bower’s reporting on Sunday from a violence-plagued Marseille gave the best account I’ve seen anywhere what the aftermath of the England-Russia match was like both in the stadium and after the match. Bower’s first hand account of the violence and comparisons with what he has observed at past international tournaments gave a perspective generally not offered on American television about these type of events.  

Studio:

ESPN’s studio analysis thus far in this Euro 2016, with the exception of Abby Wambach who has a steep learning curve, has been even stronger than during the 2014 World Cup. Michael Ballack is much improved without the specter of constant fighting with Alexi Lalas (now at FOX). Plus the rotation of studio hosts has helped to liven things up. Steve McManaman has improved. And Taylor Twellman, whose skeptics can seemingly only point to his playing career as a reason he shouldn’t be commentating on this event, is making a strong case that he is the strongest American analyst of the world game in the modern era. Twellman and Ballack have developed a chemistry almost immediately that has enhanced ESPN’s coverage.

SEE MORE: Highs and lows of ESPN’s Euro 2016 opening weekend coverage

For example, Ballack and Twellman combined with host Bob Ley to provide something special at the end of the England-Russia game. The analysis and exchange between the three ESPN personalities goes down as one of the strongest analytical discussions in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic finish that I can recall in three decades plus of watching this sport. Twellman and Ballack both made strong points about Wayne Rooney’s leadership and play as well as Chris Smalling’s ball watching and the general English mentality particularly with a younger squad. Ley chimed in to remind the duo that Wales was next up for England and with the obvious rivalry aspect of that match coupled with Gareth Bale’s strong words about the English side, the coming match takes on even more significance.

Elsewhere in the studio, Craig Burley as always doesn’t pull any punches while Roberto Martinez’s tactical analysis has been as strong as ever. Injured Belgium captain Vincent Kompany has been a good addition while splitting his time between the BBC and ESPN. Santiago Solari, as always, has been solid in his analysis. And Mike Tirico, in his final ESPN assignment, as well as Steve Bower have been excellent studio hosts.

The team despite being in a temporary studio due to weather concerns has been well-drilled and developed good chemistry.

Case-in-point:  On the daily ESPN FC show, Craig Burley was a critic of Roberto Martinez’s management this past Premier League season — at the very same time that Steve Bower was working for NBC Sports in covering the league. Yet all three combined Monday morning to give flawless studio coverage of the Spain-Czech Republic game. Professionally, it was an amazing thing to witness and spoke to the type of off-air preparation work ESPN does with its studio talent.  

Match commentators:

Ian Darke, Twellman, Jon Champion and Stewart Robson are all very good at commentating matches. That we knew coming into the tournament, and all four have continued to be very strong. Steve McManaman has improved dramatically since the 2014 World Cup while the return of Derek Rae to ESPN’s airwaves has been welcome. Alejandro Moreno has done a good job as a co-commentator on games while being left behind in Bristol to contribute off monitor. Moreno’s knowledge of European soccer has improved dramatically in the last few years as he’s gone from an MLS/Liga MX expert to something far beyond that. Moreno serves as a very useful utility man for all of ESPN’s soccer programming these days. Max Bretos called a solid Spain-Czech Republic match, his debut for the tournament.

Other features:

Alison Bender has been very good in adding some flavor to the tournament with her features both online and on the broadcasts. Kasey Keller and Julie Foudy both provide strong American voices to the coverage. Foudy, quite honestly, could be used more but the desire to bleed Wambach into a studio role seems to have cut the airtime for the longtime ESPN personality.

Overall assessment:

Having lost World Cup rights to FOX Sports, ESPN has doubled-down on the Euros as a signature international soccer event. That’s good news for American viewers like myself who actually find this tournament more entertaining from an actual quality of play standpoint. ESPN’s coverage, while not flawless, has been an A grade thus far and provides a strong example to FOX Sports as to how they can conduct their presentation for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. CTBlues

    June 14, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    My first major soccer tournament that I really watched and paid attention to was 2009 Confed Cup and whenever I see ESPN’s intros I get chills and remember the 2010 WC.

  2. David

    June 14, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    I think ESPN’s coverage has regressed compared to previous tournaments they’ve covered. Alejandro Moreno is terrible. He shouldn’t be the commentator for any matches. He’s already annoying enough as it is on ESPN FC. I don’t understand why ESPN decided to hire Abby Wambach. It’s odd hiring someone with no experience for such a big tournament. I’m really liking Michael Ballack. He’s improved so much as a studio analysis. Overall, I do think ESPN has done well covering Euro 2016, but I don’t think it’s as good as their coverage from the previous 2 World Cup’s.

  3. Michael

    June 14, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Simply put, FOX are amateurs. I cringe watching Alexi, Rob Stone, Wynalda, etc. That whole group just screams pedestrian. ESPN brings real experts in, while their production value and little video pieces before each game are great.

  4. Joe

    June 14, 2016 at 9:11 am

    I like watching on Fox better. To me you can hear more of the atmosphere at the game where ESPN sounds like a muted crowd.

  5. Bretos??!

    June 14, 2016 at 8:50 am

    Did you actually listen to that game? Breton is a horror show. Mute Bretos.

    • Fulhamish

      June 14, 2016 at 10:49 am

      He’s no dark Tyler or Darke but horror show is a bit strong don’t you think? Not my favorite but he didn’t detract from the match. He’s not like “He who shall not be named.” You know, the guy with the first name that rhymes with Bus?

      • Bretos is an abomination...

        June 16, 2016 at 7:07 am

        …he was actually WORSE yesterday, if that’s possible. He should be nowhere near a microphone since he’s far more interested in what puerile nonsense is coming out of his mouth than, y’know, the actual game.

  6. Alan

    June 13, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Fox has regressed from last years women’s World Cup. They seem to be trying to use sky sports coverage as their template…. Create controversy where there is none and when there is such as the Peruvian goal last night they totally made it farcical by all the studio analysts asking Dr. Joe to tell us what we already knew.
    Record both Fox and ESPN coverage, watch them both at the same time and you can easily see the vast hill that Fox gas to climb before 2018. Both Stone and Lalas need to go back to the mother ship for training.

    • Stone is awful...

      June 14, 2016 at 8:53 am

      …and always looks as if he’d rather be somewhere else. Please, if there is a god.

  7. Zack

    June 13, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    This sounds incredibly nitpicky. But FOX seriously needs to work on its CGI. It looks nothing compared to ESPN’s more high quality production values.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer

      June 13, 2016 at 7:22 pm

      That is true also….actually had a friend remark on that to me.

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