Saturday, May 25, 2013

ESPN Loses English Premier League


Fare-Thee-Well, Ian and Macca

By Ed Garea

Usually, ESPN manages to insult my intelligence, but this time it broke my heart, even though it’s not all the sports network’s fault.

Three years ago, on the back of the success they had broadcasting the World Cup, ESPN bought the rights to broadcast selected games of the English Premier League. Having been a fan of the English game since 1964 (Yes, 1964. Being a member of my school’s soccer team, I was also a Beatles fan, so guess what city’s team I rooted for?), I was eager to see what ESPN would do – or do to – the games. Expecting the worst, someone like Alexi Lalas doing the commentary for instance, I was very pleasantly surprised when they chose Ian Darke to do the play-by-play, and totally bowled over when they chose Steve “Macca” McManaman to provide the commentary.

Talk about hitting a grand slam. Darke is the best at play-by-play in the business. Think of a combination Vin Scully-Red Barber-Mel Allen at the microphone and you get an idea of Darke’s style. This concise style, added to an inner sense of when to turn the exuberance on and off and just how high to dial it, makes him a sheer joy to listen as he describes a game.

McManaman was quite possibly my favorite player. I loved watching him at work; his dribbling and running skills were the best in the game at the time. An attacking midfielder with Liverpool, and later Real Madrid, he was exciting to watch on the pitch. (I can still remember his two goals for Liverpool in the 1995 FA Cup final against Bolton, which won the game and later earned the match the title of “the McManaman final.”) Along with teammates Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp, David James, and Jason McAteer, they caused havoc both on the pitch and off the pitch, where they were labeled “The Spice Boys” by the press for their antics. But proving he was more than just a dumb jock, McManaman wrote a football column for The Times of London, and after retirement, enjoyed a television career in England.

What, then, made them so special in my eyes? To start, while most commentators either simply go back and forth during a game, or have a conversation during the game, Ian and Macca had a conversation about the game. They went into the game assuming the viewer was sufficiently educated enough to the point where they needed not be spoon-fed about some of the game’s finer points. If a viewer didn’t know what’s going on, just listening to this duo describe the action was enough to prompt him or her to look up those finer points. But while they didn’t talk down to the viewer, they also do not talk above their viewers’ heads. Rather, they credited their audience with the intelligence to quickly surmise what’s going in. Their job was to enhance the viewing experience.

Ian and Macca simply stayed on point while discussing the action on the pitch. We didn’t hear, for instance, about, say, Ian’s new espresso machine, or the new gift Macca’s missus bought for him, or that his kid recently brought home straight A’s. Neither did we hear fawning remarks about the players, such as what this one wore to the game, or how many houses one other had, or just what a wonderful person he was. No, we heard about the players and their work during the game; where they were rumored to be going the next year – if that entered the conversation. They were so smooth that we knew they weren’t working from a list of talking points, but were rather like two guys talking about the game. Some of their exchanges were downright hilarious, such as the one during a period of rough play when one player stepped (I thought deliberately) on another’s foot:

Macca: Do you think there’s any history between these two?

Ian: There is now.

They also have to be lauded for keeping their objectivity, which I thought was difficult for McManaman as he put in so many years in a Liverpool kit. In fact, they were so good at this that I would read comments on various football blogs as to how awful they were; this always seemed to happen right after they took a team to task for particularly poor play. One Arsenal fan called them “Dumb and Dumber” after their criticism of the way the Gunners played after one disappointing match.

However, from this end they were definitely worth recording (their matches, live from the U.K., were often broadcast at the hours of 6:30 in the morning) and made me a happy viewer. They had a unique chemistry with one another. When Macca disappeared for two weeks during the close of this season, I didn’t know what to think. Craig Burley replaced him during his hiatus, and while a good commentator, Burley didn’t quite have the magic with Darke. When Macca came back to the booth and it was explained that he was in Singapore for a seniors’ football tournament, I was relieved – and I think Ian was as well. I remember McManaman putting his arm around Darke just before they went to commercial and saying with a smile, “Did you miss me?” While Darke replied with a somewhat embarrassed smile, we all knew the truth.

While they won’t disappear altogether, their time together will be drastically reduced. NBC outbid both Fox and ESPN for the new Premier League contract. While we could hope they’re astute enough to install Ian and Steve as their lead announcers, we know this won’t be the case. We do expect to see the duo reunite as ESPN has the rights to the 2014 World Cup, so we can only sit and wait, and hope something changes in the future.

All I know is that, while I love the English game, my enjoyment won’t be as great as when I could hear these two sterling professionals in action.

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