ESPN kicked off its coverage of the Euro 2016 tournament this weekend. In all, the sports network televised all seven games from the opening 3 days. While the opening weekend coverage featured some blemishes, the fact that ESPN is covering a major soccer competition again — its first since World Cup 2014 — was a welcome return.
Going into the tournament, ESPN faced several challenges that included terror alerts from the US and UK governments, transportation strikes in France, mass flooding, as well as isolated hooliganism that started to erupt in the first 24 hours of Euro 2016 and would only worsen. Plus, on top of all that, ESPN had to use a different set after its primary location was unusable due to some of the worst flooding along the River Senne in decades.
Suffice to say, the pressure was on ESPN to deliver during a very difficult opening weekend.
How did they do? Let’s take a look.
Taylor Twellman and Michael Ballack
Just like ESPN did for Euro 2012, the broadcaster has again partnered Michael Ballack with an American soccer pundit for thought provoking analysis of the Beautiful Game. Four years ago, it was Ballack and Lalas. But for this tournament, it’s been Taylor Twellman alongside Ballack that has generated several fascinating discussions. The post-match analysis between Twellman and Ballack after the England-Russia game, in particular, was outstanding. So too was their contention that perhaps Tottenham’s tired legs at the end of the season were having a detrimental effect on England’s performance against Russia.
It’s still very early in ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2016, but I’d argue that Twellman is better today than Lalas was at his prime. Twellman understands the game at a deeper level than Lalas, and is able to communicate it in a more impactful and concise manner. Most importantly, Twellman is genuine. Lalas is smart, but I get the feeling that he isn’t always being honest. He’s calculated and sometimes appears to play the role of company man too well instead of speaking his mind.
Ballack, meanwhile, is confident and is ESPN’s rock of Gibraltar. His no nonsense style and much improved English from four years ago makes him the perfect counterpoint to Twellman’s opinions. The chemistry between the two is brilliant to watch.
Steve McManaman and Craig Burley
It’s very evident that Macca has done more research this tournament to prepare for his role as a studio analyst. He’s done such a good job that I would argue he’s now a better studio analyst than co-commentator. During the first two days of coverage (Friday and Saturday), his analysis was perfect.
While McManaman and Burley haven’t been on the set together yet, Burley has been another stand-out star in ESPN’s coverage. The way he’s able to cut through all of the babble and to get to the exact problem is so refreshing to hear. For example, his “We’re dealing with idiots” opinion about the hooliganism was just the type of clarity we need.
What a pleasure it’s been to listen to an array of world-class commentators calling these games. It’s so good to hear Derek Rae, who is not only a true gentleman, but is a scholar of the game.
The partnership between Jon Champion and Stewart Robson continues to excel. Meanwhile, Ian Darke has been a joy as always. Kate Markgraf also put in a strong debut in the Croatia-Turkey match.
The big spectacle
The way that Euro 2016 has been presented thus far by ESPN makes the coverage look and feel like a major tournament such as the Olympics, Wimbledon or World Cup. The attention to detail is spectacular. Plus, the convenience of knowing that you can turn to one channel, ESPN, to watch approximately 10 hours of uninterrupted coverage every day for the next month is a soccer fan’s dream come true. There’s no need to figure out which channel is going to show the game every night.
The way that ESPN has woven in coverage of the hooliganism issue deserves a pat on the back. ESPN isn’t hiding from the news. Plus it has the seasoned pros on staff to address the issues and deal with them instead of pretending they’re not happening.
For example, full credit must be given to ESPN to reporting on altercations of Russia fans attacking England supporters after Russia scored, as well as flares being set off, etc. With very little information available after the match finished, it would have been much easier to not report the news until more was learned. But ESPN shared what they were able to find out. And the fact that they didn’t ignore the story showed that they understand their responsibility to report the news, whether it’s positive or not.
Several of the video segments that ESPN has played so far have been outstanding. The one entitled Legions And Lore, narrated by Maisie Williams, is particularly wonderful. The Game of Thrones star, who plays Arya Stark, also narrated the excellent video segment before the England-Russia match.
If you haven’t noticed it already, pay attention to the graphics package ESPN is using in the opening of their daily coverage where it has the Euro 2016 logo spinning. The references to the Louvre museum are exquisite. The more you watch the animated graphics, the more detail you see.
Out of all of the studio analysts, Abby Wambach has been the weakest link by far. Her analysis has been lightweight. Either she needs more time to adjust to the more in-depth analysis that we expect from ESPN, or she isn’t cut out for the job.
Take, for example, her pre-match analysis of the Wales-Slovakia game where she said something that was bewildering to me:
“[Wales] want to make Gareth Bale as good as they can possibly make him, so they’re going to support him in any way they possibly can. And it’s not very often that you can get a bunch of men to support another man. I think this will make the team even better, and it’s only going to help them down the line.”
It’s not very often that you can get a bunch of men to support another man? What does she mean exactly by this? To me, it sounds sexist, inferring that men play more as individuals instead of a team unlike women. But host Mike Tirico didn’t pick up on it, and Wambach didn’t expound on it so we couldn’t get a clearer picture of what she meant.
In the same pre-match segment, she was asked to share some analysis before the game kicked off. Here’s what she said:
“For me, this game is all about getting a result. If you get a result, you’re probably going to have a chance of getting out of this group. So you’ve got to do anything you possibly can to get those 3 points.”
While the analysis isn’t bad, per se, it’s the run of the mill discussion that we can expect from other sports networks. Does the analysis tell us anything we didn’t already know? Does it make us think? Or is it something that any viewer at home could have come up with?
Where Wambach could excel is if she can share her insight as a former striker, so we can get inside the head of what a player thinks before, during or after matches.
Maybe it’s because Roberto Martinez was paired with Wambach (where she dumbed down the analysis) or maybe it’s because the touchscreen analysis hasn’t been used yet because it’ll be used in the primary studio when they return to it, but so far I’ve been disappointed by Roberto Martinez’s analysis. He was such a star of the World Cup 2014 and Euro 2012 coverage that the expectations for him are so great. We know he can provide much more thoughtful and deeper analysis, but we haven’t seen it yet.
On Friday night, Martinez clicked much better with Kasey Keller than he did with Wambach. So perhaps it’s a case of finding the best partner to create a good chemistry, or having a host who will push Martinez harder to share his insight and wisdom. So far, Wambach and Tirico appear to be holding Martinez back.
Overall, ESPN’s coverage is off to a great start. It’s still early in the tournament, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing the new set, as well as learning more about the Beautiful Game from many of the sharpest minds in the business. When you’re just as excited about the TV coverage as you are about the tournament itself, you know that ESPN is doing a world-class job.
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