In recent years, I've really come to dislike ESPN. SportsCenter has become an embarrassing circus, and in general the "worldwide leader in sports" has been the lead agitator in misreporting and over-hyping sports stories. I don't even watch the network that much anymore. I almost never watch SportsCenter.
Soccer, in particular, has never come easily to ESPN. While its Champions League match coverage has generally been decent, ESPN's studio work for soccer has long been lacking, and its attempt to cover the 2006 World Cup was downright embarrassing.
In 2006, the network tried to shoehorn baseball announcers into doing play-by-play and offered a studio show full of clowns and half-experts who contributed little in terms of analysis or perspective. (Georgio Chinaglia might have been a great figure in American soccer in the '70s and is something of a likable scamp, but he was a cringe-worthy studio pundit four years ago.)
That's why it almost pains me to say that ESPN's coverage of the 2010 World Cup has been...pretty darn good. Maybe excellent. First of all, Disney decided to spring for play-by-play announcers with experience and legitimate English accents, and while Martin Tyler could show a bit more enthusiasm, he's miles better than poor Dave O'Brien was four years ago.
But where the ESPN coverage really excels this year is in the studio. The network's decision to stop pandering to American audiences with American commentators and bring in foreign experts has been a master stroke. The likes of Jurgen Klinsmann and Roberto Martinez have illuminated matches adeptly, and Ruud Gullit has been nothing short of a star with his classically blunt Dutch candor.
Steve McManaman is a bit of a loose cannon, but he knows his football. And ESPN very much did the right thing by bringing in Shaun Bartlett to offer a distinctly South African flavor. Even Alexi Lalas, often annoying and obnoxious, has toned down his presentation and has become a worthwhile studio presence, although he does have a tendency to repeat himself.
The network has stuck to football for the most part, but its brief vignettes on apartheid South Africa have been poignant and moving. Clearly the nation and the network both want to celebrate football with this World Cup and not dwell on South Africa's horrible and very recent history, but to its credit ESPN hasn't glossed over the horrors of apartheid. Even the normally Kleenex-weak Julie Foudy managed an excellent piece on black prisoners of apartheid, and Sunday's bit about South Africa's 1996 African Cup of Nations win was nothing short of inspirational. A recent piece on Youth Day in South Africa was also very good.
The real strength of ESPN's studio coverage, though, has been its American hosts. No longer just clueless question-posers, ESPN's veteran announcers have clearly studied up on football and can now discuss the game intelligently with the likes of Lalas, as well as with their foreign studio counterparts. Mike Tirico is the consummate professional as always, and Chris Fowler has performed admirably with the unpredictable McManaman sitting next to him.
The real star, however, has been long-term ESPN veteran Bob Ley, whose expertise and professionalism are at the very least equal to those of the best European commentators. Ley, somewhat marginalized by ESPN these days, reminds me during every broadcast of what the network used to be before it became a spectacle of traveling idiots. Ley is personable, knowledgeable, witty and engaging, all without being a parody of himself. He's a much-needed throwback and a refreshing presence on television in general and on sports television in particular. His work on the World Cup should win an Emmy if he's eligible for that sort of thing.
Some programming executive at Disney finally got soccer coverage right. (Surely a non-American was in charge of this process...) The result has been pre- and post-game shows very much worth watching, along with a prime-time highlights show that is one of the best to come along in years. ESPN has started broadcasting Premiership matches--West Ham's away loss to Man City was on the network last year. I've long hoped for more football coverage on ESPN and less on Fox Soccer Channel (which I still can't get in HD), and with ESPN's current World Cup lineup I'm looking forward now more than ever to watching the world's game on the worldwide leader. If only ESPN would hire Eric Wynalda back, everything would be just about perfect...but that's another post for another time.
For more on my unhealthy obsession with West Ham United and soccer, check out West Ham U.S.A.