Commentary: Debut of ESPN FC shows promise, but may not offer what MLS fans want (yet)
Sunday night's debut of ESPN FC on ESPN2 was an occasion that many soccer junkies once would've described as a breakthrough moment for the sport: the world's largest and most prominent sports broadcasting network finally rolling out a daily (well, six-times-weekly) show to provide in-depth coverage of the world's game from a specifically North American perspective.
The reality, as usual, was and is a bit more complicated than that, however.
First off, ESPN FC's debut episode offered little that could be described as revolutionary or cutting-edge content, though in some degree through no fault of its own. The explosion of web-based video content in recent years – especially in soccer, a sport where the Internet has long filled the void created by the mainstream media's disinterest – has watered down the impact of iconic daily TV shows like this one for core fans.
And upon initial viewing, it seems quite possible that ESPN FC simply isn't intended to cater to the kind of devoted fans who are likely to be reading this article.
The show kicked off with a brief video introduction from Clint Dempsey, the man of the moment on this side of the Atlantic, only for the studio foursome of Dan Thomas, Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and Alejandro Moreno to immediately launch into analysis and punditry of the weekend's English Premier League news.
The 2013-14 EPL campaign hasn't actually kicked off yet, but Sunday's Community Shield match between Manchester United and Wigan provided enough of a hook on which to hang an in-depth conversation about the season ahead, with transfer gossip sucking up a substantial amount of the oxygen in the room. And the well-hyped return of supermanager and famous quote machine José Mourinho to Chelsea FC proved just as irresistible to the ESPN FC panel as it has to every outlet in England and Spain.
It would be some 25 minutes before MLS topics were broached, with Alexi Lalas and former New England Revolution coach Steve Nicol replacing Burley and Hislop for a debate about Dempsey's move back to MLS. This lack of prime placement may disappoint current fans of the league but might also simply be a reflection of ESPN's demographic research.
The EPL seems to be king in ESPN FC's world – as it is in many nations across the globe – with the biggest clubs in Spain, Italy and Germany following close behind. Burley, the former Scottish international, left viewers with no doubts about that status quo when he opined that “An American going back to the MLS is not a story” anywhere but here.
If the Worldwide Leader's new offering can introduce MLS to viewers who tune in looking for European footy news first, it could benefit the league, but it may also reinforce the traditional paradigm which pushes North America's top flight well down the priority list based on old ideas about where, why and how the planet's best soccer can be found. A “Messi or Ronaldo” discussion came off as similarly formulaic, even with the use of a real-time Twitter poll which was one of several conscious nods to the sport's newest and most interactive social media vehicle.
Speaking of traditional paradigms, so far ESPN FC (for better or worse) looks every bit the modern ESPN product: heavy on opinions and debate, light on deeper analysis or actual reportage. Every journalist who appeared on Sunday night was asked for their opinion first and foremost, and there was disappointingly little in the way of analytics, explanations or research. In that respect, it resembled fellow Bristol products like Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption and the like, where spirited argument seems to have become just as important as the sporting events themselves.
To be fair, that initial impression could, and should, be left behind as the European club season begins in earnest and there is more on-field action to digest and disassemble. At that point the experience and value of ESPN FC's talent should have a better chance to rise to the fore.
The depth and diversity of the show's on-air talent had been trumpeted – with justification – when the show's creation was announced and day one did not disappoint, with at least eight well-respected commentators from a variety of backgrounds making appearances, whether on-site at ESPN's studio in Bristol, Conn., or beamed in from overseas locations.
It's an impressive lineup but one that takes careful juggling by the show's producers in order to be wielded effectively, and they just about got it right in the debut episode. Here's hoping that fact gatherers – ideally on-location ones – are added to that mix to balance out the opinion generators who predominated on opening day.