ESPNs Euro 2016 coverage has been mixed, while Fox has been sharper, funnier, and truer to an authentically American culture of the sport
Who has won Americas summer of soccer ESPN or Fox Sports? To frame the question in this binary is to ignore, of course, the claim of another channel perhaps more familiar to the occasional American football fan. For long stretches of the winter, while MLS is in hibernation, the summer international tournaments are either long forgotten or far in the future, and the people of this country turn their attention to the double thrill of dressing in weather-flexible layers and making jokes about coffee flavored with pumpkin spice, footballs cultural airtime is occupied almost entirely by NBCs coverage of the English Premier League.
NBC, it must be said, does a pretty decent job. Rebecca Lowe is a sharp and good-humored host who understands that the best anchors are those who direct the conversation while having the humility not to dominate it. As former players, the two Robbies Earle and Mustoe bring the required spritz of experience and tactical insight to proceedings; and its perhaps helpful that their own playing careers were successful, but not spectacularly so, since this means they avoid getting into the matey-matey, Remember when we won the Premiership? self-congratulation many of the former players covering English football across the Atlantic Ocean exhibit.
Finally Kyle Martino brings the most important ingredient of all: hair thats so perfect, thick and still, it appears resistant to nuclear attack. Its a tough gig being thrust into the role of token network American, but Martino performs it well he sounds intelligent about the game in a way that makes his lack of Englishness appear irrelevant.
Overall, NBC keeps it snappy but plays it straight there are quips, but not too many, and the panel segments are kept mercifully short and direct. This is why the coverage provided by Fox Sports (of the Copa America) and ESPN (of the Euros) over the last few weeks might strike the casual American consumer of football content as a bit of a shock. (Were in the era of content now, not of live sport or TV; its important to get with the lingo.)
Where NBC serves up the Premier League as the TV equivalent of a quick morning snack, Fox and ESPN have covered their respective tournaments as if they were sprawling, extended family dinners where everyone gets drunk, you go hard on the carbs early and get bread sweats by the 15-minute mark, and things end hours later in a shouting match about the supreme court and the apathy of checkout workers at Walgreens with your aunt Janine. Both networks, faced with the challenge of filling hours of airtime, have responded with a strategy that says the only thing better than discussion of live football is more discussion of live football.
ESPN has worked hard to convince us of its Euro creds throughout the tournament in France. For a start, theres that set. A blue neon cube suspended over the banks of the Seine, ESPNs Euros HQ looks like it could have a second career once the tournament is over as an overpriced seafood restaurant called Le Blue Lagoon. It is, shall we say, very mid-80s Luc Besson. Michael Ballack, Craig Burley and Roberto Martinez have reinforced the Europeanness of the whole exercise chiefly by being, well, European while Steve McManaman, Ian Darke and all the other Englishmen on set have provided the critical non-EU member state perspective (sorry, too early?).
These good efforts valiant efforts have done nothing to stop ESPNs coverage from being relentlessly, gratingly parochial. Slovakia, Darke told us the other day as the match against England got under way, is a country of just 5 million people around the same size as Minnesota! Gareth Bale v Russia, meanwhile, began with the insight that Wales is a tiny country no bigger than New Jersey! America so big! Its as if ESPN doesnt trust viewers to know there are countries beyond the borders of these United States, and that some of them shock! might not be that large.
It hasnt helped that the network, already reeling from an exodus of on-screen talent over the past year, decided to hand anchoring duties to two of its most underwhelming performers. Mike Tirico and Bob Ley dress as if theyre getting ready for a night of gimlets and mutton at the Westchester country club pleated khakis for Tirico, pocket square for Ley and their level of football knowledge seems roughly equivalent to what youd expect from an American clubhouse regular.
To be fair, its not as if they pretend to know anything; Tiricos performance can best be summed up by the invitation he offered Martinez to comment following the Portugal-Austria game: Roberto, tell us what youre seeing and that will prompt a reaction from Michael. Um, thanks man. Glad youre here. The disorientation of Tirico and Ley in this alien universe of non-US sports has lent a certain aimlessness to on-air discussion. At times Ballack and co have been left to fend for themselves, and the result has been a meandering crush of cliches and statements of the obvious.
The parochialism of ESPNs approach has extended to blanketing its commentary teams, the occasional American aside, with Englishmen the effect, perhaps, of the irritating inferiority complex that still bedevils football in this country. Who says the English, as the inventors of the sport, know it best? They dont, of course; the simple fact of having a sophisticated English accent doesnt somehow, miraculously, confer on its owner the reality of a superior understanding of football.
As it happens, this point has been proven smartly if accidentally by Julie Foudy and Kasey Keller. ESPNs two American experts have provided far sharper insights and analysis than their more storied European peers. Foudy has been especially good, operating the tactics screen with aplomb and offering that most precious sports TV commodity a perspective supported by more than naive banalities.
Kellers emergence as an on-air talent, meanwhile, is all the more notable for having been achieved in trying circumstances. For long stretches of this tournament, while Ballack and Martinez have hogged the seats over at the main desk, the former Tottenham goalkeeper has been exiled to the fruit table off to the side of ESPNs set, a solitary and slightly mournful presence left to offer his earnest nuggets of wisdom on, say, the midfield promptings of Marek Hamsik or the mis-positioning of David Alaba with little more than bananas and a basket of pastries for company. I feel sorry for the guy; someone should give him a hug, or at the very least a fresh croissant. The grace and humility Keller has displayed through this long, televised humiliation deserves our eternal respect.
Fox, in contrast to ESPN, has taken a much more American-centric approach to its coverage of the Copa. This is obviously understandable, given the different nature of the tournaments but its also yielded better results as a televisual experience.
True, there have been weak spots. Alexi Lalas is Alexi Lalas down on the US mens national team until game day, at which point its Hoo-hah, lets go USA! If NBCs Lowe is the Xabi Alonso of football anchors, pulling the strings from deep with an intelligent but subtle unobtrusiveness, Rob Stone is more like Michael Bradley a cut-price American knockoff whos eager and willing, yes, but a little meh into the bargain. You cant fault the guy for enthusiasm, but you can fault him for being forgettable.
Other contributors have carried the team. Brad Friedel has dropped the occasional clanger (comparing John Brooks to Eddie Pope wasnt an analogy likely to inspire much beyond a light rain of derisive tweets) but overall, the (mostly American) match commentators have been as good as, if not better, than their (mostly English) peers calling the Euros. Aly Wagner, like Foudy over in the ESPN seafood restaurant, has made herself a valuable contributor by sticking to the facts and getting into the tactical details of each match. If the past month proves anything, its that having only one woman on set, for both ESPN and Fox, is not just tokenism its also, and most importantly, an opportunity missed for better on-air discussion.
Herculez Gomez, meanwhile, has moped through his appearances, hunch-shouldered and stubbled, with all the joy of an alcoholic Finnish poet. I must make it clear that I mean this as a compliment: sports TV, especially in this country, often seems like a competition to see who can shout loudest. The Gomez weve come to know through the Copa offers a haven from so much noise. Like David Byrne, hes been tense and nervous and he hasnt relaxed and its been a joy to watch.
Finally, of course, we come to the matter of Fernando. Among a certain corner of the internet, ESPNs resident Copa clown ranks as perhaps the most divisive figure in America after Donald Trump. For one camp, Fernando Fiore is a braying, ignorant buffoon hiding behind the figleaf of a credibility-conferring accent and mustache: remove the facial hair, these detractors say, wielding their at-replies and their hate, and Fiore will be revealed as nothing more than a jangly sack of filler quotes and fixed ideas. In the other corner, Fiores defenders claim hes brought fun, unpredictability and a certain sense of mischief to an otherwise starchy, unadventurous, whitebread studio panel. (OK, Gomez isnt white, but this is no place for facts.)
Everyone whos wasted their early summer watching too much football will have an opinion, but Im firmly in the latter camp if only because a diversity of voices makes live sport more interesting. By turns chatty, angry, pompous and silly, Fiore is the lovable blowhard Argentinian uncle American football TV has been waiting for. We need to see more of this man.
Coverage of the tournaments on both networks has been bloated, but Fox has managed the bloat better, mixing quick crosses to reporters on the ground and regular updates from the (ill-fated) Mexican campaign with the more talky stuff in the studio. At times throughout ESPNs coverage its seemed as if the only tactic to fill in the space between match commentary and panel pontification is to let Mike Tirico editorialize on French labor law reform. This is not something any member of free society should have to listen to. All this is to say that Fox has been comfortably the better network over the last few weeks: sharper, funnier, more varied, and more true to an authentically American culture of the sport.
Perhaps the comparison is unfair ESPN is covering a European event, Fox an American one. Perhaps I was too harsh on Tirico and Ley; after all, they seem like such kind and decent gentlemen. Ultimately, it doesnt really matter, because the lessons of each networks experience covering this sumptuous banquet of sport are best shared. If weve learned anything over 2016s summer of soccer, its that network TVs coverage of the sport in this country needs fewer Englishmen, less parochialism, more zany Argentine uncles, more alcoholic Finnish poets and more women. Above all, more women.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jun/25/espn-fox-sports-soccer-tv-coverage