Media Microscope: Why ESPN Made The Right Call With Their World Cup Announcers

ESPN announced its lead play-by-play announcers for the World Cup last week and they were all Brits. Some Americans were upset by the decision, but Seth Vertelney explains why ESPN did the right thing.
It's understandable, I guess. People in the USA want to hear somebody without a foreign accent. They want somebody to explain the game to them. They want somebody that knows about soccer, not “football.” 

Plus, some people like to complain. Some are also a bit xenophobic, perhaps.

Whatever the reason, I'm still a bit flabbergasted by some of the vitriolic responses from Americans that I've read to ESPN's announcement last week that four Brits will handle lead play-by-play duties for every match of World Cup 2010.

There are obviously many factors that lead to big decisions like these, but it's easy to lose sight of the simplest, and most important reasoning behind this outcome: the World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet, featuring the world's best players, coaches, and referees and therefore, it should feature its best announcers as well.

How quickly we forget the debacle that was Dave “Why is the ref showing that guy a yellow playing card?” O'Brien and Marcelo “I'd rather watch the game on Univision and I don't even speak Spanish” Balboa during the 2006 World Cup. 

That year, rather than go with the best announcers, ESPN decided they would hire O'Brien -- a voice familiar to Americans from his work calling baseball and basketball. The results were predictably disastrous. O'Brien mixed up David Beckham and Michael Owen, he asked questions a person who'd never seen a soccer match could answer, and seemed generally lost and severely unprepared.

This year, ESPN went in the opposite direction and got it right. They picked four Brits -- Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and the legendary Martin Tyler to lead their coverage. In a blow to announcing affirmative-action proponents everywhere, they went with the best options, not the most diverse.

Really, Americans should take these announcing assignments as a compliment. ESPN is telling viewers that they are big kids now, that they feel comfortable taking the training wheels off. Rather than hiring Americans to explain the game, they feel comfortable hiring Brits who will enhance the game.

I've read arguments saying ESPN needs to have announcers that know the American game and players and really, that's patently absurd. Aside from the fact that assumes these guys won't do enough research to know the teams they're broadcasting, there are a number of Americans that currently ply their trade in the U.K. Most are significant contributors too, like Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Jay DeMerit, Stuart Holden, Jonathan Spector, Maurice Edu and DaMarcus Beasley.

This argument is also absurd since (and this may be surprising to some American viewers) there are 31 teams in the tournament who aren’t the United States.

The Americans are only guaranteed three out of the tournament’s 64 matches and they're probably not going to play more than four or five. That leaves around 60 matches that don't include the U.S. The four lead announcers currently broadcast games from the English Premier League, Champions League, Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A, meaning they will have a greater familiarity with participating players than their American counterparts, especially as the tournament progresses and the better teams inevitably advance.

Some have said that failing to include an American play-by-play announcer will be detrimental to the future of American soccer and in particular, MLS. The theory goes that if viewers become comfortable with the ways of the British announcers, they will be more likely to follow their European assignments after the World Cup, leaving MLS devoid of more fans.

It’s a fair point of concern, but one that needs further dissection.  ESPN has appointed these announcers because they feel they do the best job at presenting, analyzing and enhancing the beautiful game. Viewers should be enlightened, excited, and engrossed.

After hearing Martin Tyler call a World Cup match, ESPN -- who, by the way, owns the rights to MLS -- is surely betting on the entire experience converting more and more Americans into soccer fans -- fans who will watch the sport when it’s on TV and attend matches when they occur in their city.

Another fact that seems to have been overlooked is that there will be American voices during these matches. 

John Harkes has already been confirmed as a color commentator and will be paired with one of the aforementioned announcers. For me, most, if not all of the dissenters’ arguments go out the window with the inclusion of Harkes. He will add the American dimension that some have claimed is so sorely needed. He knows the American game, knows the American players and, yes, he speaks clearly and with no discernable overseas accent. 

JP Dellacamera is also the lead commentator for ESPN Radio, so those that really, really need to hear an American doing play-by-play need take only the following three steps: 1. Turn on the match 2. Press mute 3. Turn on ESPN radio. Voilá.
Would I like to have an American doing play-by-play for World Cup matches? Sure. 

I certainly hope as time goes by, a viable American voice that can compete with the very best commentators in the world emerges.  The reality, though, is that right now, that voice does not exist. For an event the magnitude of the World Cup, there is no place for pandering to an American audience.

Many people who know the sport want to hear it presented in its most impactful way, which means everyone will be hearing a lot of the Queen’s English this summer.

Seth Vertelney is a regular contributor to Follow him on twitter!

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