Soccer needs all the fans it can get in the United States, but it needs some more than others and few are nicer to have than John Skipper, the president of ESPN and arguably the most powerful person in sports media.
Skipper has had a strong personal interest in the sport since long before he was in his current job, and he clearly relishes overseeing the network’s blanket coverage of the World Cup starting Thursday.
But this is a strange World Cup cycle for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader, because when the tournament ends, so will ESPN’s ownership of its rights. Fox will take over for 2018 and ‘22 after winning a blind auction.
ESPN has been accused of minimizing sports for which it does not have rights — hello, NHL — but Skipper vowed that despite his admitted disappointment in the bidding result, the network is as gung-ho as ever.
He even invited Fox executives to Brazil to observe and learn the ropes of televising the event.
“I think you see the genuine enthusiasm we have about it,” he said last month at an event in Manhattan to preview the coverage. “Our goal here is to leave it with a very, very high bar, and I think we’ll do that.”
ESPN got mixed reviews in 2006 but raves in 2010, and plans to follow and expand upon that blueprint.
Notably, its lead play-by-play man will be Ian Darke, who won over American audiences with his call of Landon Donovan’s winning goal against Algeria in 2010.
It is no accident that Darke is British, as was ESPN’s other featured play-by-play voice in 2010, Martin Tyler. In 2006, the network thought Americans would prefer an American on play-by-play and used Dave O’Brien, who was widely criticized by avid fans.
“I don’t think we started with the idea we had to have a British voice,” Skipper said. “But it does sound great on soccer, right? The Brazilians play the best, but I think the Brits call the game the best, without a doubt.”
Fox plans to use Gus Johnson, an American, when it gets its turn in four years.
Skipper said he has nothing against Americans, per se.
“We’ve got Americans in the studio and most of our hosts are American,” he said. “I don’t think we’re resistant at all. It’s just a meritocracy.”
Executive producer Jed Drake said that between 2006 and ‘10, the network realized it should play to soccer fans and invite everyone else to come along, rather than the other way around.
“We put on the very best announcers, we play to the soccer audience and the rest of our audience, as our research clearly shows, will come into it for the sheer spectacle,” Drake said.
“Once you’re drawn in, you’re done. You’re there, and you are there until the end of the tournament.”
Drake said Americans’ soccer sophistication only has grown since 2010, so more than ever, there is no reason to dumb down the coverage for novices’ sake.
When it comes to the Americans on the field, naturally it would be better for ESPN if Team USA surprised the soccer world and advanced to the knockout round. But officially the network is not hanging its hopes on that.
“We don’t sit around with clenched fists saying, ‘My gosh, if the U.S. doesn’t win, we have a problem!’ ” Skipper said. “It’s a spectacular shot in the arm if the U.S. gets through the group and goes on. But I actually do believe they’re going to perform well.”
And if not, well, perhaps you’ve noticed how often highlights of the Mexican national team have turned up on “SportsCenter” recently.
“We clearly bet on a move to make Mexico sort of our second national team,” Skipper said.
And if Team USA fails to come out of its group? “Then they’ll become the first national team for us.”