Yesterday ESPN2 televised the much talked about Manchester Derby in the English Premier League between Manchester City and Manchester United. The game ended 0-0 and didn't live up to expectations, but it seems like a good time to take stock of ESPN's soccer coverage post 2010 World Cup, which by all standards was one of the best things the network has ever done. I love criticizing ESPN as much as anyone (The Heat Index, Colin Cowherd, etc.) but people everywhere were drawn into soccer last June thanks in large part to the self-proclaimed WWL.
Since the World Cup, ratings for EPL games have been solid and there certainly appears to be an audience for the beautiful game. Yesterday's game was symbolic of where ESPN is at with that other football.
On the plus side, the actual game coverage is superb. ESPN made a wise choice in hiring World Cup play-by-play man Ian Darke as their full-time lead soccer announcer. He brings excitement and knowledge to any telecast. Thankfully, he's more Gus Johnson than Joe Buck. Remember his call of Landon Donovan's goal in the World Cup that topped our AA list last month?
We're a long way from the wretched combo of Dave O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa in 2006. As yesterday's game showed, it greatly helps the broadcast to have the match commentators on site and not in some Bristol broom closet trying to announce the game. Even with something as little as interviewing fans outside the stadium, it makes that connection with the viewer that American soccer fans have rarely seen from the best leagues in Europe.
Analyst Steve McManaman (another new full-time ESPN hire) was insightful in his comments in the studio. However, ESPN should have taken advantage of their abilities and resources and put together some sort of pre or post match show yesterday (like Saturday mornings) instead of the third showing of Skip Bayless on 1st & 10. Americans can only suffer so much! With only a few minutes before and after the game, there was little room to draw viewers into the game yesterday and the league. The strength of ESPN's World Cup coverage was the depth to the telecasts, especially in the studio with Chris Fowler, Roberto Martinez, McManaman and others providing meaningful info that pleased the diehards and informed the casual viewers. Unfortunately, yesterday's coverage was closer to what you might see from the zombies at Fox Soccer Channel and years past from ESPN than their excellent World Cup.
Therein lies the uncertainty with ESPN's soccer coverage. It did an amazing job with its commitment to the World Cup (remember when it was a fixture throughout the "family of networks"). However, ESPN hasn't continued to fully build upon the World Cup success into the EPL season. Let's not get started on MLS, which is buried somewhere between the NHRA and World Series of Poker reruns. If guys like Bill Simmons will watch and tweet about the EPL, then there is really something there worth covering more in-depth.
ESPN still has plenty of room to grow in continuing to market and improve how it televises soccer. It has come a long way in 4 years, but there hasn't been that leap that one might have expected after the success of the 2010 World Cup. You might see a goal every week in SportsCenter's Top 10, but what about a few minutes a week to talk to McManaman in between Mark May and Mark Schlereth? How about ESPN sacrifices 5 minutes out of their scheduled 50 each hour devoted to the Cowboys and Vikings? Surely in the 499 hours of live SportsCenter a week there is a place for soccer talk. ESPN should continue to push the EPL because viewers will watch the best players in the world and the league is showing growth stateside. As crazy as it sounds, in 2010, it's completely reasonable that American sports fans can care about an English soccer league.