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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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