The soccer world ground to a halt this past weekend as fears about the coronavirus threat shut down European and American sport. Prior to the suspensions and cancellations of events, we had a full matchday of UEFA Champions League and the fallout from the US Soccer’s continued stumbles. It was a week like no other for soccer news making ESPN’s flagship soccer program ESPN FC more valuable than perhaps any time in the show’s seven year run. As soccer shut down, ESPN FC ramped up.
Turner’s UEFA Champions League turnaround
Credit B/R Football with the most rapid turnaround of the season in US-based soccer television. The BR Live/TNT pregame and post match shows flipped the switch from mistake-laden fluff for the first set of UEFA Champions League Round of 16 fixtures to a much more serious approach last week. Sure we had a few Kate Abdo errors as well as a fluff piece or two, but the discussion on the whole was more intelligent and soccer-centric.
The presentation both pre and post match on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week is the best Turner has provided since they began broadcasting UEFA club competitions in August 2018.
Stu Holden once again excelled. And Tim Howard’s return to a career as a player (with USL’s Memphis 901) seemed to sharpen his analysis. Howard has a unique perspective on Liverpool as someone who played a decade for the Reds local rival, Everton. Howard’s analysis of playing at Anfield in big matches was the type of analysis often missing from US broadcasts of European soccer. Holden seems more dialed-in than ever in his career, even more so than during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. His knowledge of European soccer at the elite level has consistently improved throughout his career and now is comparable to anyone on American television.
Also credit to TNT for pivoting to an approach where pre match comments from players and managers and postgame interviews were aired frequently last week. This has been a big miss of Turner’s coverage the last two seasons as interviews with coaches and players around the matches aired sparingly, if at all. Airing these interviews also helped drive the studio discussion in a way that pre-taped features and other random topics do not.
ESPN FC on top of European scenarios and US Soccer mess
Last week was a big one for ESPN FC on ESPN+ as hosts Dan Thomas and Adrian Healey were effectively able to present an indispensable news program amidst all the happenings in a week like no other we’ve ever seen in the soccer world. Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens and Sid Lowe were able to give timely updates on coronavirus’ impact on European leagues. Marcotti’s reporting kept ESPN FC viewers abreast of potential scenarios for resumptions of leagues, voiding of seasons, knock-out styled playoffs to determine champions and relegation or abbreviated seasons.
ESPN FC is becoming even more important for soccer fans in the United States. This is anecdotal but within my soccer circle, the number of people anxiously waiting for the newest episode to be posted on ESPN+ was significantly higher than usual last week. While part of this is most certainly people sitting at home with less to do and a desire to watch something, as well as the likelihood more people are using OTT services right now than ever before, much of it has to do with the timeliness of how ESPN FC presents current news during a turbulent week.
Having actual reporters and journalists and not just soccer commentators on the show is a major reason why the program continues to be unlike any other in the United States.
Carlos Cordeiro’s resignation as President of US Soccer Federation was greeted warmly throughout most of the soccer insider class in the US. Many felt this was a moment to move on and rally behind the new President Cindy Parlow Cone. However, Herculez Gomez appearing on Friday’s show felt differently and pointed out that the strategies employed in many cases predated Cordeiro or needed board approval. Given the current climate at US Soccer and the number of lawsuits and legal claims the organization has faced, he suggested the whole board should resign.
Julie Foudy correctly chimed in that the Latham firm which US Soccer was now handling the USWNT equality lawsuit was the same firm that handled some of US Soccer’s problematic claims toward the women in 2016 when an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint was filed by the US women.
NBCSN features replays – but what about a studio show?
The postponement of the weekend’s Premier League fixtures didn’t come until Friday morning. As a result, NBC adjusted its programming schedule by showing January’s Liverpool-Manchester United clash and other previously taped programming, including studio and magazine shows. NBCSN has a large library of previously played matches to show and they tapped into that reservoir to air several matches throughout the weekend. It was disappointing that NBC didn’t fit in a two or three hour show to discuss the season thus far, and options going forward.
Some very serious reporting has been done about options for either completing, finalizing or abandoning the season in England. It would have been beneficial for American Premier League fans who are hearing every rumor under the sun and may not watch the ESPN FC program to get a full update on the potential scenarios for both England and Europe. Post-Neil Ashton (who left in January to start a PR agency that represents Manchester United), NBCSN seems to have little ability to report on news.
NBCSN will give us a healthy dose of Sky Sports News going forward as a substitute for live, US-based programming. This is a positive development no doubt, but this past weekend was a missed opportunity. NBC has so often set the tone for soccer coverage both in this country and of the Premier League in general but unfortunately I sense the network mailed it in this weekend when an opportunity to further distance itself from the competition was available.
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