Thursday, July 1, 2010

Classic Sports Thursday

I'm sitting here watching tonight's Canadian Football League opener (yes, I know it's only July 1), while at the same time reading Stewart Mandel's College Football Mailbag on, and I run across the following question from Seth in Omaha: "Stewart, what do we need to do to convince ESPN to keep Derek Rae, Martin Tyler or Ian Darke on the company payroll through college football season?"


Rae, Tyler and Darke are three of the British announces which ESPN imported for their coverage of the World Cup.  When last we saw the World Cup, in 2006, the Worldwide Leader was pretty much making a hash of the whole thing.  American announcers spent most of their time trying to explain the game to people unfamiliar with soccer, all the while displaying their own lack of experitise.  Oh, and for much of the time they did this while sitting in a studio, miles (if not a continent) away from the stadium, watching the game on a monitor.  No wonder so many soccer fans turned over to Univision; even if you couldn't understand a word the announcers said, you still came away feeling you understood more about the game than if you'd stuck it out on the American broadcast.

When ESPN announced they'd hired Martin Tyler, one of the premier British football broadcasters, as their lead announcer for this year's Cup, it was the first signal that they'd heard the voice of the fans.  In fact, all four of the play-by-play announcers for this year are British, and the network further said they'd be giving us the games straight up, without pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Finally, they'd figured out that giving us the remedial version of soccer didn't make anyone happy: it enraged those who did understand the game, while doing little to make it attractive to those new to the sport.

Because of this, it has for me been a pleasure watching ESPN's coverage this year.  And, judging by Stewart's correspondent (as well as Stewart himself), I'm not the only one who feels this way.  I've always been a fan of Tyler's, having heard him on broadcasts of the English Premier League* and the UEFA Champions League games, but all of the Brit announcers have been knowledgable, understated, literate, and not afraid to speak their minds, whether discussing the quality of play on the field or the lack of same from the officials.  Yes, we all know how easy it is to pick on France, but they haven't shied away from discussing everything from the performance of the United States to the controversy surrounding the new ball being used to the constant din of the omnipresent vuvuzelas.  Oh yes, and they've resisted the urge to treat every big play as if it were an apocalyptic moment in the history of the world.  I'm not the biggest soccer fan in the world, but I'll be sorry to see this year's tournanent come to an end.

* If you really do want to learn to enjoy soccer, I'd recommend starting with the Premier League.  The World Cup is is often cautious, conservative - yes, boring.  The Premier League, on the other hand, is quite different - exciting and relatively fast-paced, with more offensive play and definitely more color, particularly from the fans, who seem to find different ways to serenade their teams with endless stanzas of "You'll Never Walk Alone."  Definitely the place to start.

Now, having said that, here's the great Martin Tyler - not quite as cool as we're used to hearing him - dispelling the notion that watching soccer is as exciting as paint drying.  This is from the Champions League final of 1999, and proves you can watch soccer without falling asleep!  The sound isn't quite synched up with the picture, but it's thrilling nonetheless. 


  1. In the UK, the Premiership is restricted only to "pay television", as it is split between Sky (Fox Soccer is the US subsidiary) and ESPN UK. ESPN UK's rights include a Saturday 5:30 game, which is why ESPN US will offer Saturday morning games during the EPL season with lunchtime kickoffs on Saturday. (Note that ESPN is split in the UK into ESPN UK and ESPN Americas; ESPN Americas, fka North American Sports Network, is regarded as the "network of Americans abroad".)

    ESPN International's rights also include the Spanish league.

    Obviously, with the big-name leagues, ESPN decided since they hold rights to the Premiership and the Spanish league, to go with the boys who call the Premiership. Besides, one sad effect of the Spanish-language game is obnoxious commentators. The "X's and O's" style of US television just doesn't work with British television. The Summerall style simplicity doesn't cut it.

    The traditional UK culture has been the single-man booth (like the old ABC boxing matches of Cosell) -- which in North America is rarely heard except in horse racing. Usually he doesn't have the former player next to him to put the X's and O's. That means they don't (unlike most US men in the booth) have to be complex thinkers.

    Fans don't want to hear the player's name and the importance of the goal and go on.

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