Now that the Group Stage of the 2016 European Championship has concluded, it’s time to take a look at the job that ESPN has been doing since the opening weekend of the tournament.
Overall, despite several major obstacles, ESPN has raised the bar on its coverage of a major international soccer tournament. So much so, that it’s taken the art of broadcasting a major event like this to a new level. It hasn’t been perfect by any means but the visual appeal combined with the thought-provoking analysis and attention to detail puts it light years ahead of FOX Sports’ coverage of Copa America Centenario.
Let’s take a closer look at the highs and lows of ESPN’s Euro 2016 coverage thus far:
1. Quality of American talent
It says a lot about the rise in quality of soccer on US television that many of the stars of ESPN’s coverage have been from the American talent. Taylor Twellman is able to stand his ground and offer fascinating points of analysis alongside Michael Ballack and Roberto Martinez. Kasey Keller has impressed me immeasurably, while Julie Foudy has raised several excellent points in the roundtable discussions they’ve had on set.
2. Riveting coverage
Certainly in the first week of Euro 2016 coverage, it was difficult to turn away from ESPN. The coverage was so addictive and riveting, you never knew what was going to happen next. First, there were the developing stories about hooliganism across the country, which made you tune in to see what was going to happen next. Second, there were the labor protests in Paris next to ESPN’s set, which resulted in the entire set being shut down. Third, of course, there was the football. Seeing the success of minnows such as Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland was a sight to see.
While the soccer on the pitch was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly, the common thread throughout this tournament is that you had ESPN on site in a studio in the middle of Paris, broadcasting this fascinating tournament. The powers that be at ESPN could have easily decided to broadcast from a sterile studio setting in Bristol, Connecticut, but they didn’t. And it paid off.
3. Worldly experts
The ability of ESPN to harness the expertise of its talent at any given moment is extraordinary. Take for example, the incident that happened during the Croatia-Czech Republic game when flares were thrown on to the pitch, halting the game for a few precious minutes. Just minutes later, immediately after the game ended, ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti was on-set explaining what had happened and how it was a small faction of Croatia supporters who were trying to sabotage their national federation. Not only that, but Marcotti shared the discussion he had with UEFA representatives just minutes earlier.
ESPN’s ability to turn on a dime and offer intelligent insight into what is happening is world-class. It would have been so easy for the broadcaster to condemn the actions and to just blame it on Croatia as a whole. But Marcotti’s involvement elevated the discussion and helped turn the conversation into what UEFA should do based on the complicated situation.
I’m going to name names, so consider for a second what Marcotti brings to ESPN compared to what Grant Wahl does for FOX Sports. Both men are accomplished writers and authors who have almost identical roles for their respective broadcasters. But while Marcotti has his pulse on the game, Wahl is reduced to a cheerleader, offering lightweight feature pieces and very little to no hard-hitting analysis. He has become what Alexi Lalas has become for FOX Sports — a company man.
4. Intelligent hosts
It’s been a joy to watch Bob Ley, Mike Tirico and Steve Bower. Each of the hosts brings his own style. Unlike other broadcasters, none of them have uttered anything this tournament that makes you roll your eyes or stop to wonder “Did he just say that?” All three are very at ease in their roles, and they’ve helped to keep the discussions flowing in an interesting and informational way.
5. Attention to detail
In the fast paced world of soccer coverage, it’s so easy to get lost in all of the action. Just one example of ESPN paying close attention to a match was Alvaro Morata’s second goal in Spain’s 3-0 win against Turkey. Immediately after the game was over, the ESPN cameras rolled the footage from the beginning of the play that led to the goal, and showed every one of the 22 passes that resulted in the amazing goal. Only two players on Spain’s team failed to touch the ball, and that attention to detail is just one of many reasons that separates ESPN from other rivals.
6. The set
Last but not least, ESPN’s set alongside the River Seine has been a joy to watch. Even when you think ESPN has shown you all of the incredible sights around the set, they spring a surprise — whether it’s a choir singing alongside the river banks or the beautiful sunsets. I can’t stop watching the set, and it only adds to the quality coverage.
I also love the roundtable area. Even though ESPN is working within a small space, some of the roundtable discussions have been fascinating to listen to (with the added bonus of seeing boats sailing down the River Seine behind).
This began for ESPN during the World Cup 2014 coverage, but I’m growing tired of the homerism among some of the analysts. For example, we all know that England as a national team has been in decline for years, but Steve McManaman’s over-the-top sense of belief in his country’s team can be nauseating. At the same time, it makes the England games intolerable at times when you have Ian Darke and Macca getting absorbed in the drama (McManaman’s moan of exasperation when the final whistle blew for England 0-0 Slovakia is a good example).
Personally, I would prefer to watch a game where the commentary is going to be fair and balanced. I don’t want to hear a very one-sided commentary. Darke, at times, tries to pull it in by talking favorably about the opponents, but it’s impossible for Darke and Macca to be fair when they’re commentating England.
Overall, ESPN has been too soft on England. They’ve played poorly in all three games, but the talent almost always seem to paint England in a positive light and believe that they’ll continue to advance.
The same can be said about Michael Ballack’s over-confidence in Germany and Vincent Kompany’s belief that Belgium should progress to the semi-finals or final. It’s human nature to people to favor their own country over others, but it doesn’t make for good television. I’d rather have someone such as Craig Burley, who doesn’t have a dog in the chase, to offer his uncensored analysis that will cut through the bone and call it the way he sees it.
2. Santiago Solari loses track of the Euro schedule
ESPN pundit Santiago Solari, who has offered good opinions thus far, got confused on set this week. After the coverage of Northern Ireland/Germany and Ukraine/Poland, Solari kept on talking about how the Spain-Croatia and Czech Republic/Turkey games the next day should be more exciting and entertaining to watch. Except the problem was that the games were about to kick off within the hour on the same ESPN channel. He made the mistake twice on air, which made me go back to my TV schedule to make sure I wasn’t confused. Surprisingly, the host didn’t try to immediately correct Solari. The mistakes slipped by, but they must have been confusing to many other viewers too.
3. Close-up replays not seen on TV
Last but not least, during the Italy versus Sweden game, ESPN showed a replay where they zoomed in to show that Giorgio Chiellini’s throw-in that led to the goal was a foul throw. Unfortunately, because the zoomed-in shot was at the bottom of the screen, ESPN’s ticker covered the incident so we were unable to see whether Chiellini had his leg raised or not. Hopefully ESPN caught the mistake and will keep that in consideration for similar zoomed-in action in the future.
ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2016 resumes on Saturday, June 25.
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