ESPN World Cup Telecasts Decidedly British

I’m not a soccer expert.  Way far from it.  I understand the game pretty well.  At least the basics.  And just like almost every other kid in the United States, I played soccer growing up.  But football (American style, that is) was always my first love, and as I wasn’t allowed to play Pop Warner, when I reached junior high, I jumped at the chance to play for my junior high school team.

In order to do that, I had to give up soccer, because in Colorado, the football and soccer seasons run concurrently, unlike here in California.  Gotta chose one or the other.  Winter snow and all.  And like just about everyone else across the country, because of that I grew up viewing soccer as a kid’s game.

That’s too bad, too, because I find that as I get older I’m gaining a whole new appreciation for the sport.  Credit MLS for that.  Having a viable professional league in the U.S. certainly helps to raise the profile of the sport and makes it a viable alternative to football, baseball, and basketball.  There’s just something about the potential to play professionally on your home soil that makes the sport more attractive to the masses.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a football guy through and through.  But I do find myself searching for the odd MLS game on ESPN or the Fox Soccer Channel.  And I love watching the U.S. National Team play.

Every four years, though, since 1994, I become completely and totally fascinated by soccer.  Every four years for a month in and around June the World Cup is played.  And there’s just something incredibly special about the World Cup.  And I absolutely LOVE IT!  I am obsessed with watching our U.S National Team play, as I think EVERY red blooded American should be!

And correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that every time since ’94 that the World Cup rolls around, the U.S. pays more and more attention; the interest level in the world’s game seems to rise in this country to record levels.  And after every World Cup, the MLS becomes more and more popular, draws more and more fans, and has managed to expand into more and more cities.  The Seattle Sounders played their first season two years ago and instantly became a HUGE success, both on the field (or is it pitch?) and at the box office.  Portland is set to field its own MLS team next year.

Slowly but surely the game is growing in this country.  It’s becoming more and more popular, more and more accepted.  More and more American players are playing in the big money leagues in Europe, and the U.S. National Team is continuously climbing in the world rankings.  Americans are starting to identify with the sport.

Which makes ESPN’s decision to put a strictly British accent on its World Cup broadcasts, including the U.S. National Team broadcasts, just so damn baffling to me.  In the opening game against the Brits, Englishman Martin Tyler took the play-by-play duties, with former U.S. National Team player John Harkes providing the color commentary.

Ok, so maybe I can let that one slide.  After all, it was a U.S.-England match, and having an American and a Brit in the booth for a game against our cousins provides a unique flavor.  Kind of fun, actually.  A friendly rivalry in the booth for a friendly but important rivalry on the field.

But why maintain that kind of broadcasting lineup for the U.S.-Slovenia game?  John Harkes once again took the color commentary responsibilities, but for the play-by-play, the network once again tapped a Brit, this time Ian Darke.  In fact, three of the four play-by-play broadcasters are from England, which the fourth, Derek Rae, from Scotland.  Of the three color commentators employed by ESPN for the World Cup, only Harkes is a “Yank.”

Are they intentionally trying to point out to the millions of American viewers that soccer is not an “American” sport?  Are they trying to alienate their American audience?

It would seem to me that if they were truly trying to promote the game in the U.S., they would have Americans in the broadcast booth.  Or at least have an all-American booth for U.S. matches.  It’s not like they don’t have anyone they can turn to—after all, ESPN is the network that televises most of the CONCACAF region qualifying games for the U.S., employing JP Dellacamera to team with John Harkes.  (Dellacamera is relegated to doing radio for ESPN during this World Cup.)  Kind of like having a home team broadcast crew to put a decidedly American face on American games.

By all means, feel free to deploy the Brits for all of the other games (and ESPN is televising all 64 games played in the 2010 World Cup).  But for U.S. games being beamed back Stateside?  Wouldn’t it make sense to put a decidedly American voice on it?  It’s like Telemundo employing a Spaniard to broadcast Mexican National Team games back to Mexico.  For some reason I don’t think that would go over very well with the Mexican populace.

Americans tend to be very nationalistic.  As a country, we’re slow to accept and incorporate anything foreign.  Part of the reason soccer has struggled so mightily to gain a foothold here is precisely because it’s the “world’s game.”  We didn’t invent it, and we didn’t perfect it.  And thus it’s decidedly UN-American.  Which only demonstrates our ignorant, stubborn pride, but it is what it is.  We’re used to being a prime exporter of culture.  We invented baseball.  We invented basketball.  Two sports that have caught on nicely around the world.  But they’re still OUR games and we’re still the best at them (despite the Japanese stranglehold on the World Cup of Baseball).

For the U.S. to get excited about its team in the World Cup, we need to make it OUR game.  We need to put OUR stamp on it.  Reminding us that the game belongs to someone else, I fear, is going to hamper its ability to grow.

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