ESPN’s Soccer Journey Has Been, In a Word, Interesting

The road to South Africa 2010 is absolutely pivotal, and ESPN snapped up the English language rights for the US only. Here’s a little journey through their big coverage of The Beautiful Game.

World Cup 2006: The Disaster

We saw their coverage in World Cup 2006, and I watched nearly every game, and I thought it was the worst coverage of a major tournament in history. The dumbed down approach towards the “casual soccer fan” backfired, and they ended up having millions, and I mean millions, of hardcore fans and casual fans listening to Pablo Ramirez yell “GOLAZO!” on Univision. Everything from the overbearing graphics that covered up the screen, the statistics aren’t even close to being correct (Australia qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, when it was actually Austria), to, most importantly, the commentators.

They treated one of the biggest sporting events in the world like crap. Dave O’Brien was basically given a few months to study the game and commentate on select US matches. He’s already, considered by many, to be a poor baseball and basketball announcer, and when I first heard O’Brien in the World Cup I lost it. He wouldn’t stop talking and talking and talking, bringing up pointless “human interest” stories, and his knowledge of the game was lacking. I mean, he called David Beckham “Michael Beckett”. ESPN thought it was a great idea to have O’Brien learn the game with everyone else! And frankly, the World Cup was just PERFECT! Alas, he was your lead play-by-play man, which leads me to……

Marcelo Balboa teamed up with Dave OBrien to make up the nightmare broadcast team.

Marcelo Balboa teamed up with Dave O'Brien to make up the nightmare broadcast team.

Marcelo Balboa. The former US International defender tortured us with his brutal contradictions and tired cliches. One minute he would talk about an Italian player doing a good job in selling a foul, and then the next minute say there is no place in the game for diving for an Australian player. Not just that, Babbleboa continued his logic with

“(player) had the better chance in that 50-50 ball.”

That’s right, one player’s 50 is bigger than his opponent’s 50.

“Hits the back of the post.”

Net anyone?

He did this over and over again to the point where I was off to Univision before the knockout stages. Me thinks him clearing crosses into the box took a toll on the noggin. That was your lead analyst, add him with Dave and you have 90 minutes of talk.

The bright light I saw from the coverage had to be Adrian Healey and Tommy Smyth. They seemed to be the sane ones there. They seemed less interested in Ivory Coast being in a civil war at the time (more on that later), and more interested on the game……great concept right?

We all know the hosting and the USA bias was bad, Alexi Lalas thought Kasey Keller was the best goalkeeper in the world, and Julie Foudy seemed lost half of the time. Eric Wynalda would often make snarky comments about Ronaldo, really did a lot more whining than analysis, and he was also pretty annoying. It didn’t matter who was hosting (Rece Davis, Dave Revsine, etc.), it ended up being a train wreck.

Another criticism I had of ESPN’s coverage was their severe overkill of stories. They thought beating into my head the fact that Ivory Coast was in a civil war and that the US was playing on Wednesday in HD would be a great idea, but it was just another ploy to talk a little more. Take an example from the British announcers, they don’t go into detail about a player’s childhood problems, that is mostly a private issue, and frankly, it is irrelevant to the game.

To conclude, all of us were shaking when ESPN snagged the rights to Euro 2008, and in 2006, it was expected that O’Brien and Balboa would ruin another tournament.

Petitions were given to get ESPN off of soccer coverage, Dave O’Brien out of the booth, and something tells me the executives and producers got a hint in 2008.

No More O’Brien, Balboa, or Wynalda

Earlier in the year, O’Brien was doing a lot more baseball and college basketball work, and frankly something had to give……and it was soccer! He and Balboa were no longer the lead commentators for US games or tournaments, and instead were replaced by JP Dellacamera and John Harkes. A much more well received idea, and they haven’t done a bad job at all.

In comes Wynalda making a fatal mistake. Making comments like these lost him a job come the new MLS season this past March with the two mentioned above.

As we wait agonizingly to see what ESPN do, there is another option:


That’s right, Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth usually handle UEFA Champions League games for ESPN in Bristol, calling games off of a monitor, with Adrian Healey and Robbie Mustoe as the 2nd pair.

The months go, and the press release reads…..

The landing of Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray was given much praise and really put ESPNs regulars like Julie Foudy and Tommy Smyth to shame with his opinions and knowledge.

The landing of Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray was given much praise and really put ESPN's regulars like Julie Foudy and Tommy Smyth to shame with his opinions and knowledge.

ANDY GRAY!! The greatly respected Sky Sports analyst! Alright! Outside of the hosts, every one is from Europe. This may actually work, and then….

Let’s call all of the matches off of a monitor!

Euro 2008

Things got off to a horrific start, uninteresting games, and sadly, Andy Gray doesn’t deserve to stoop to the level of his counterparts (Julie Foudy, Tommy Smyth). Foudy couldn’t go 10 words without stumbling or slobbering over Cristiano Ronaldo. Smyth went from being good for me to tolerable with contradictions and refusing to admit he is wrong. Gray was the shining spot of a pathetic studio show. Let’s not forget the presenters! Steve Bunin (or was it Dari Nowkah? Don’t remember) opened up with “the UEFA Euro 2000”, which sounds more like a toilet product, and at least get the year right please. Player pronunciations were way off, and I was prepared for another disaster.

But, like most bloggers out there, were pleased with everything else besides the pre-game and post-game shows, ESPN really showed some interest, no dumbing down of the game, and the only irk I had while watching the matches had to be the constant plug of the NBA Finals or a NASCAR event, not necessary. The graphics were good, not overbearing, stats were relevant, and to be honest, I thought they did a great job covering the event.

World Cup 2010?

In an interview with World Soccer Daily, the chances of Andy Gray returning for World Cup 2010 were quite good.

Certainly we’ll have our trickle of American announcers like Dellacamera doing matches for the US should they qualify, but this is a step up for ESPN.

This is going to be the point where ESPN can’t afford a flub. I have confidence in them (yes, I DO!) that they will play to an audience of higher intelligence, and give us wall to wall coverage and useful facts that will make watching ESPN for at least one event pleasurable again.


4 thoughts on “ESPN’s Soccer Journey Has Been, In a Word, Interesting

  1. ss

    I hope ESPN has got the memo to let the soccer-specific announcers do what they do best, and not infiltrate the game with other talking heads.

    I imagine we could see something like:

    Glenn Davis/Tommy Smyth

    as the three main pairs for World Cup 2010. I would be entirely okay with that.

  2. Mookie Post author

    Surely Rob Stone should be in there?

    I want to know more about Bitchy the Hawk!

  3. d2001dstanley

    It would be better if Derek Rae was paired with Smyth. I can’t stand Davis, who works MLS matches for HDNet. He continually botches the name John Wolyniec (should be pronounced like Wo-li-neck, Davis pronounces it as Wol-knee-ack).

  4. Mookie Post author

    Davis would probably with Shep Messing, which in itself was another train wreck.

    The other question would be how ESPN treats this even if the US somehow fails to qualify for the World Cup.


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