The complaints started before the first match. Why did ESPN choose a baseball announcer who had no clue about soccer to call the premiere matches in the 2006 World Cup? US Soccer fans, overjoyed that all 64 matches would be broadcast live, were dismayed at the choice of Dave O’Brien. In early March an online petition was started, begging ESPN to replace O’Brien before the World Cup. They already have over 4,500 signatures.
For those of you who don’t know, Dave O’Brien normally calls baseball games for ESPN. He was pressed into service as a soccer announcer because ESPN felt that new fans would feel more comfortable hearing his voice – a known quantity to baseball fans:
"It was a calculated risk," Jed Drake, a senior vice president and executive producer with ESPN and ABC Sports, told The Washington Times on June 10. "We wanted to take a signature voice from a mainstream sport and make it the signature voice of this event. We hope it pays off."
Before I even get started with O’Brien’s performance up until now, the viewpoint of ESPN executives is appalling. "A signature voice from a mainstream sport" Which obviously means they feel soccer isn’t a mainstream sport. There’s the old ‘nobody likes soccer’ mentality hard at work. The arrogance of ESPN is even more galling:
When asked about criticism of O’Brien from soccer fans by The New York Post on June 9, Tim Scanlan, ESPN senior coordinating producer for World Cup coverage and the man believed to have chosen O’Brien, said: "You can look at this from another side. Maybe soccer has finally been given its due to have this type of broadcaster delivered to the sport."
Let me be one of many when I scream at the top of my lungs: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?! Soccer is given it’s due because ESPN ‘delivered’ O’Brien to us? Where can we write return to sender?
I’m not sure you can blame just Dave O’Brien here. He was thrown into this and had only a few months to prepare. ESPN took someone used to the snail’s pace of a baseball game (scratch, spit, sign, pitch, swing, miss, throw back, repeat) and threw him into a sport where there is never a break in the action except for injuries and major fouls. However, it’s clear that O’Brien didn’t prepare well nor did his handlers. Confusing Michael Owen and David Beckham was just one of many obvious foul-ups.
Now in all fairness, he has gotten better in that he seems to be able to keep pace with the match a bit more. But his research is still shoddy and his analyst partner Balboa is often correcting him. The attempts to bring up political points related to soccer or to talk about players personal history instead of the pertinent info like who they play for professionally and how they’ve been doing is just criminal.
So I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he’d improve, but as we approach the quarter finals it’s become clear – Dave O’Brien has GOT to go. My voice is one of many in a chorus that began after the first World Cup match…
Uche over at Copia posted this the first day:
I wondered about the O’Brien guy, though, and I didn’t have to wonder long. I think I can summarize his knowledge of football thus: He knows that the ball is round and that the goal’s net is not made of barbed wire, but he knows hardly anything beyond that. Marcelo Balboa was constantly having to interrupt to correct O’Brien’s laughably wrong assessments of matters on the pitch. Just to give one mad-cap example, a Costa Rican defender stuck out a hand to pull Schweinsteiger’s shirt in the box. Schweinsteiger (I think it was him, but I might be remembering incorrectly) dove and the ref ignored him. It was one of those cases of: sure it’s technically a foul, but far too minor to merit a penalty. O’Brien, however, took this as an opportunity to say: "That just shows that the idea that you cannot use your hands in soccer is a complete misnomer". As such he managed to 1) misuse the word "misnomer", 2) confound the the many possible senses of the term "use your hands" 3) ignore the fact that shirt-pulling is illegal in football.
My ultimate exasperation came when Klinsman brought in Neuville to replace Klose mid-way though the second half. O’Brien asked Balboa, in a mystified tone, "so why does Klinsman decide to sub Neuville for Klose at this time?" I just about jumped up and down yelling at the TV: "Because Neuville is one of the wiliest strikers in the world, and is a perfect man to bring in to poach a late goal when a game is not quite winding down the way you’re hoping". The problem is that clearly O’Brien knows nothing about these players.
James and the Giant Blog felt an apology was necessary:
I’d like to apologize on the behalf of American soccer for the horrible, boring commentary from the main ESPN announcers, Dave O’Brien and Marcello Balboa. I’m watching most of the matches on Univision and I don’t know Spanish. As a bonus, Univision actually shows the anthems, lineups and pre-game festivities.
Over at SoccerBlog.com, Shourin Roy felt about the same:
Dave O’ Brien and Marcelo Balboa are the most dysfunctional pair going around. O’ Brien regularly misidentifies the players. And when he throws something out that Balboa should respond to, the chances are that there is going to be a whole lot of silence. And when Balboa finally speaks eons later, it is as if everybody around has a hearing impediment. And they don’t really know much about the players. ABC has adopted the Olympics template- everything has to be a good story. And listening to Dave O’ Brien you get an idea of what I am talking about. The problem is that he has Marcelo Balboa who ignores him at best but most likely does not know what the *@%$#&* O’ Brien’s talking about.
Who Ate All The Bratwurst, as expected, was brutally honest in their 8 inhumanely cruel things about watching the World Cup on ESPN:
4. "Germany retains possession." Sounds fine out of context, but now imagine it during England vs Paraguay. Exactly. Former baseball commentator Dave O’Brien is becoming an Owen Hargreaves style cult figure among knowledgeable American World Cup watchers.
5. "David Beckham, who is of course married to Victoria ‘Posh’ Adams." Nearly. Dave O’Brien again.
By now, the complaints were reaching quite a crescendo. When USA Today asked O’Brien about it, he was clearly in a snit:
"I’m a baseball guy," says O’Brien, who calls ESPN baseball. "And that’s a dirty word among soccer enthusiasts. There was a backlash before I did a single game." That happened in January. Online and elsewhere, soccer die-hards weren’t welcoming.
O’Brien warns that talking about the prejudice he faced "is a dangerous story to write." (Dangerous being a relative term: Writing this doesn’t seem like reporting from Iraq.) "There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited. … And they’re not really the audience we want to reach anyway."
Networks airing big events most Americans don’t follow – such as Olympic events – usually assume viewers need human interest touches to stay tuned. That can seem dumb or distracting to aficionados.
Announcers in soccer-mad countries can be minimalist, O’Brien says, but he’s "introducing story-telling elements. And that antsy clique I’m talking about doesn’t want that – or any effort to entertain."
U.S. soccer TV ratings, outside the Cup, are microscopic. And, O’Brien says, "If we cater to the clique, they’ll stay there. Soccer hasn’t been presented well to guys like me who played it in high school and are raising daughters on travel teams."
Dangerous? What did he think we were? Hooligan Bloggers? A petulant little clique? How quaint. Announcers in soccer-mad countries are minimalist because they know their fans are educated about soccer and the action is non-stop. Sure, in the US you can be forgiven for thinking you need to explain things like the Bundesliga and FIFA to new fans during the early matches. But the whole political angle with Iran’s president and the Holocaust and human interest stories are NOT what new US soccer fans need. They need intelligent announcers who know what the #$%@& they are talking about so they can become better educated soccer fans. And you might be surprised at just how many viewers are members of that clique.
Needless to say, O’Brien’s little hissy fit didn’t win him any new fans. The uproar continued, and it started to show up in the main stream press instead of soccer blogs.
Despite what they try to tell you in that World Cup ad slogan on ESPN and ABC, one game doesn’t change anything.
Three games is what we gave network play-by-play man Dave O’Brien – all three of the U.S. team’s broadcasts – to determine if all the criticism heaped upon him back in April by the soccer snobs was justified, to see if he’s indeed worthy of his bosses’ gut decision that he’ll be the one to take coverage of soccer up a notch in this country.
We did change our opinion of him as each game was played. It got progressively worse.
Put it this way: When the U.S. team boards a plane to head home in disgrace, O’Brien should be handing out the peanuts on the flight.
Tom goes on to mention the petition drive and the ever growing complaint thread at BigSoccer.
A day later Ben Grossman over at Broadcasting & Cable magazine, covering all things television, pulled a Wynalda and called for O’Brien to be benched:
it is viewers who now are suffering as the event hits the later rounds. O’Brien is clearly not up to the task and ESPN should replace him. His lack of an understanding of what is taking place in front of him, especially in crucial and fast-moving situations, is completely below ESPN’s standards.
There is no better example than O’Brien’s inability to realize a David Beckham freekick on Sunday went into the goal. His excruciating delay in realizing the ball was in would be like an announcer in the World Series waiting way too many seconds before realizing a home run cleared the fence, when every baseball fan watching knew it was gone. O’Brien’s delay actually made me second-guess my eyes after I knew the ball was in immediately and took away from my enjoyment of a wonderful sporting moment.
But that play doesn’t stand alone, as O’Brien continues to misinterpret plays, often blaming forwards for missing when in reality their shots have been blocked by a defender or a goalkeeper. It seems the game is moving too fast for him, and this is the world’s biggest stage, no place for on-the-job training.
Using a baseball analogy to slam O’Brien – priceless.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jeff Klien over at the New York Times World Cup Blog brought the hammer down:
Which means the World Cup final on July 9 will be announced for the English-speaking American audience by a sportscaster whom a very large part of that audience doesn’t like listening to. The Italy-Australia match on Monday was a prime example of the sins still being committed by O’Brien and Balboa. While the teams attacked back and forth, applying pressure and having many close calls over the first hour of the game, O’Brien talked over the action, reciting informative nuggets about Gigi Buffon’s high school resume and the Christmas rap record he once made. Balboa talked past the action – while the Italians were assaulting the Australian penalty area, he rambled on with analysis of plays made two, five, twenty minutes earlier. I tried hard to stay with them, but I finally had to switch to Univision.
It’s easy to see why O’Brien and Balboa announce this way. They are simply calling soccer games the same way all American sports are called. And yet the fact that there is such dissatisfaction with a very traditional, mainstream announcing team speaks volumes not just about the way soccer is presented on American TV, but about the state of American television sportscasting in general.
You really need to read the entire post Jeff put up. He brings up very valid points about how sportscasting in America has lost its sense of urgency and instead spends too much time on snazzy graphics, human interest stories, and over explanation.
The executives at ESPN need to wake up in a hurry if they want to compete in the US soccer arena. Every single soccer fan I know, when asked about the seemingly poor ESPN broadcasts by new soccer fans tell them the same thing: switch to Univision. Listening to a match in a language most don’t understand is better than listening to Dave O’Brien. Jeff Klien makes the same observation:
All these strands together add up to the crisis in American sportscasting that is made evident at every World Cup, when English-speaking fans flee in enormous numbers to listen to commentary in a language they don’t even understand.
Not something you want your advertisers to know if you ask me.
Now you may say "well just suffer through it, the cup ends in a week", but this isn’t just about the 2006 World Cup. ESPN has World Cup rights through 2014 and MLS. ESPN has to realize this was a mistake and when they are driving fans to Univision (who is already spanking ESPN in ratings), there is a problem. As Jeff Klien notes in his post’s conclusion:
The common denominator in the way American TV covers any sport is the absence of the simple, urgent description of what is happening on the field, the court or the ice – the single most visceral thing for any fan watching any sport he or she cares about.
That is the very experience the Spanish-language World Cup telecasts give English-language viewers: the sense of urgency, of excitement, of drama. There are no departures to explain what the rules are, no fancy graphics to present statistical factoids, no interruptions to show personal profiles. In Spanish, the narrative is the thing, and even though anglophones may not be able to follow that narrative perfectly, its primacy is so compelling as to be preferable to the ESPN/ABC model.
Here’s hoping ESPN and ABC catch a clue – fast. Soccer is at a tipping point of popularity. Many longtime fans I know have commented on how many people they didn’t expect to care about the World Cup are actually asking them detailed questions about it. The 2006 World Cup ratings are up 200% or more which means a lot of new fans. It would be a shame to scare them away by ESPN’s horrible announcer teams (OK you can keep JP and Harkes). So please, for the sake of all the suffering US soccer fans, show Dave O’Brien a red card. It’s easy to do – just ask any World Cup referee. They’ve had lots of practice.
For some more Dave O’Brien fun, be sure to
- check out his dubious Wikipedia entry
- Sign the petition
- Tell ESPN what you think of their choice of Dave O’Brien