The ESPN Doctors

Sunday, August 16, 2009 by

Two years ago, I wrote here about the launch of Setanta Sports.

We weren’t to know then that it was to collapse into financial disarray less than two years later, but tuning into ESPN’s coverage of Everton vs Arsenal on Saturday teatime, you may have wondered if it had ever gone away. Jon Champion was in the commentary box, Rebecca Lowe was interviewing anyone she could grab and even the anthropomorphic Bet 365 letters were still jumping around their cartoon stadium before the ad breaks (no surprise, given everything in football now appears to be sponsored by betting companies). Yet this was always going to be the case – ESPN only landed the rights a matter of weeks ago, which is not much time to create a production team from scratch, and obviously there was an entire Setanta crew sitting around doing nothing. Indeed, alongside Champion, Setanta refugees Steve Bower and Jim Proudfoot have already turned up on ESPN voicing European football.

However the channel simply couldn’t produce Son Of Setanta, so there were some obvious changes. The most notable was in the anchor’s chair, where we met Ray Stubbs. The affable Merseysider is not, perhaps, the first person you’d think of to launch a new enterprise, thanks to his two decades or so as the Beeb’s jack-of-all-trades, but he brings professionalism and a no-nonsense approach to the coverage, and from its first match it seems that this is something ESPN are emphasising. The most obvious change was that rather than lounging around in open-necked shirts in an executive box, Stubbs and his guests were behind a formidable desk in a studio and had donned smart suits and ties. That’s surprising as in recent years both the BBC and ITV have moved towards a more smart casual closing policy (as did Setanta), and only Sky continued to enforce a more formal dress code, but the outfits seemed to point out that ESPN were a serious and professional outfit. Given the disaster of Setanta, that’s presumably something ESPN (and the Premier League) want to emphasise – these people know what they’re doing.

One of the best things about ESPN’s Premiership coverage is what they’re not doing. Coverage of Setanta’s Saturday teatime matches always began at 4pm, over an hour before kick-off, with the first hour interspersing the build-up with a rolling scores service. This was the worst of both worlds, though, as it meant the build-up was constantly interrupted and more often than not goals and major incidents came in the middle of a feature so they were always late announcing them anyway. ESPN have rightly taken the view that everyone who’s interested in the scores is watching Soccer Saturday so they don’t start their coverage until 5pm and, apart from a quick rundown of the scores at the start, concentrate entirely on the match in hand.

ESPN’s concentration on experience has also manifested itself in its choice of pundits, with Peter Reid and Ian Wright in the studio (obviously Wright didn’t wear a tie, but he did don a restrained dark jacket and shirt) and the veteran Joe Royle replacing the perennially pissed-off Craig Burley as Champion’s co-commentator. However ESPN haven’t yet installed any permanent pundits and, to my mind, they needn’t bother. Setanta almost always used Steve McManaman, Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand on all their matches, and seeing the same faces say exactly the same things every time made for boring build-up. A rotating panel of pundits isn’t a bad move at all, at least it’ll be a bit more interesting.

Similarly, ESPN haven’t yet commissioned any support programming for their Premier League output – they simply show the live games and that’s it. This could well be a side-effect of their frantic rush to get on air but Setanta’s magazine shows were never that interesting and added very little to the channel. In many ways it was a question of timing – the Beeb and Sky have nabbed all the decent timeslots, with Andy Gray’s Last Word analysis on Sunday teatimes and Match of the Day 2 on Sunday nights. By Monday night, when Setanta finally had the chance to run through Saturday’s goals again, we’d already seen them umpteen times and all the papers had had their say, and Setanta’s pundits rarely had anything more illuminating to add.

ESPN’s first match certainly had a memorable result, but was the actual coverage memorable? Well, the level of coverage demanded by the Premier League ensures that every match on television is filmed to the highest standards (and ESPN, eager not to break the bank like Setanta did, have farmed out their actual match coverage to Sky Sports anyway, thus guaranteeing quality) so there’s no problem there. The subdued red and black colour scheme is a bit easier on the eye than Setanta’s revolting bright yellow. Jon Champion’s as good as he’s always been. Rebecca Lowe is bright and intelligent in her interviews. And all the familiar aspects of a live football match are present and correct – forthcoming attractions are plugged every twenty minutes, there are unenlightening vox pops with the fans in the build-up as if anyone cares, and an actor, in this case Steven Berkoff, has been hired to recite a supposedly “stirring” monologue to accompany the montage at the start of the show. ESPN may be making their first steps in British football but there’s no deviation here from the well-worn Premier League template.

At the moment, ESPN simply haven’t had the time to think about anything but getting on air, but it could be said that this has been to the company’s benefit. Setanta desperately wanted to be Sky Sports, splashing the cash on rights of questionable value, aping their formats and presentation style to the letter and pretending its rivals didn’t exist. ESPN know that about 90% of its audience will be watching both channels, because if you want to see all the Premier League matches, you have to. It may be that, in the future, ESPN will dominate the UK sports television market as they do in the USA, but for now, as the signing of the unassuming Stubbs proves, they know their place.


One Response to “The ESPN Doctors”

  1. Glenn Aylett on October 18th, 2009 5:37 pm

    Setanta’s coverage was quite good, but ESPN seem to be just as proficient and hiring in long serving and knowledgable presenters like Ray Stubbs seems to work and Jon Champion has always been a good commentator. Also, unlike Setanta, ESPN is a much more established brand and unlikely to fail.