I'm on the roof of Red Bull Arena in New York, looking down at the field below. To my right is a small line of broadcast booths that contains, among others, ESPN commentator/play-by-play announcer Adrian Healey and his co-commentator/color analyst, Taylor Twellman. To my left, some 50ft from the booths, is a small desk on the edge of the roof, exposed to the elements and with a laptop and a monitor perched precariously on top of it. Despite the fact that we're occupying a stadium roof's worth of space, it feels like I'm in intimately awkward proximity with the man sitting behind the desk, as we are the only people visible at our level.
I give an awkward wave; Alexi Lalas looks up and smiles courteously, before going back to his notes and his feed of the MLS game that is unfolding beneath us, looking for patterns or significant moments that will give him a story to tell in 15 minutes' time, when he delivers his halftime analysis. In those short moments he will burst into brief, animated and opinionated life, before settling back into isolation to watch the rest of the game. As he will later explain:
To be quite honest it's not like other sports in the US and certainly how soccer is covered around the world – we just don't have the type of time to discuss that they do. I'm having to make points in a matter of very small … not minutes but seconds. My job is to inform and entertain with whatever I say, and to do it with an economy of words.
Anyone who watches ESPN's MLS coverage has occasionally seen cutaway shots of Lalas in these eagle's nest vantage points, as if to illustrate the macro perspective he's supposed to provide. If it seems a little incongruous for such a notably garrulous figure to work in such isolation, it's perhaps also worth considering that Lalas is a polarising figure within American soccer – certainly among the fans who attend games live, and who know him not just as the most recognizable face of the USA 1994 home World Cup team but as a three-time general manager (for the Galaxy, Earthquakes and what is now the Red Bulls) turned opinionated pundit. Aside from all the sensitive, partisan toes these incarnations can tread on, the image of Lalas as some sort of clown prince rather than a footballer has persisted in some fans' minds since that '94 World Cup. It occurs to me that if I attracted some of the disproportionate flack he might get when spotted on a game day I might work alone on a roof too, but when we speak later Lalas shrugs off the idea that he's somehow operating in voluntary exile:
You have to have a thick skin at times, for sure, but no, I tried a few things and this type of analysis just happens to be my forte. And by the way I'm in … we're in … the entertainment business and I make no apologies for it."
It might be a motto for the network he works for. ESPN and soccer have not always been easy bedfellows, yet it is a measure of the strides the network has taken in recent years that when the Premier League rights were awarded to NBC last year, much of the schadenfreude extended towards Fox Soccer, which lost the rights, was not extended to their sometime broadcast partner for the EPL. Instead, the general reaction was of uncertainty about what NBC would do with their new acquisition, amid regret that ESPN's coverage was being cut short.
When I speak to ESPN's head of sports programming, Brian Kweder, who says he wouldn't call the Premier League decision a surprise "because of the increasing value of soccer rights in the US, and the fact that there's a ton of competition out there", he insists that the loss of the Premier League will not unduly affect ESPN's commitment to the sport, claiming the network's "soccer portfolio continues to be very vibrant". He also acknowledges the cultural and indeed business shift that has taken place in recent years at the network, and not for the first time in my conversations with ESPN staffers, he references the 2006 World Cup.
Popularly regarded as the high-visibility nadir of ESPN's soccer coverage, the 2006 tournament (during which the network seemingly tried to invent and educate an audience from scratch and ended up condescending to one they apparently didn't realize existed), was arguably the traumatic impetus the network needed to re-evaluate their coverage of the sport and who their audience were. As Kweder puts it, diplomatically:
I think initially when we got into the sport we were trying to cater to a general-audience fan a little too much, and I think what we've improved on is really reaching the soccer fans out there who are smart and follow soccer through various web sites and various media – we cater to them a lot more now, as opposed to prior to 2006, when we were catering to a general audience.
The improvements have ranged from first principles (assume your audience knows what offside is …) to personnel, as the network has honed its approach. There was also the significant development of moving soccer production in-house after 2006, and the "match-fit" sharpness and institutional knowledge acquired from a multi-year deal to cover MLS negotiated around that time, in tandem with World Cup rights. Just as MLS was beginning to expand again after its forced contraction in 2002, ESPN arrived in time for what might be called the Beckham years, but just as crucially were the "infrastructure years" – as stadium after soccer-specific-stadium came online, most built with the televising of this particular sport in mind, or in the case of the Cascadia teams, coming with large, built-in and passionate crowds.
The ESPN soccer producer Chris Alexopolous was a production assistant ("cutting video, doing some of the smaller tasks …") who worked World Cups up to and including 2006; he had also worked covering multiple sports for the network. When the job of soccer producer came up, he jumped at it:
I was really happy to do it – a lot of people ask me, 'Oh, how long are you going to stay in soccer?' I want to stay in soccer my whole career. There's no other sport I'd work on. I'm not on soccer because I couldn't get on a better sport. I want to be here.
Alexopolous recalls his early days of covering the sport, including moments when camera teams might be seconded from baseball coverage and have to have the rules of the unfamiliar new game explained to them, but he also speaks of the knowledge and expertise that has built up over time:
I'd say that now, if we have 10 camera operators on a show, four of them are cameramen we have on every show. In our tape room, if we have five people operating tape machines, three of them are on the show every week, so that helps us incredibly, because they understand the game, they understand where a replay should be cued up. The camera guys know that if we're talking about a particular story, they know exactly who the player is on the field – they don't have to search around or look for a number, or 'I don't know what that guy looks like'.
They know if we're talking about a manager who's on the hot seat, or whose job is in jeopardy, one of the camera guys will know who the general manager up in the stands is – the man who could fire that guy – so they can anticipate the next shot. It's those kind of small things that have built up to make a better show, make better storytelling … that sometimes the audience might not even notice … but it always helps.
I ask Alexopolous about the increasing brute tempo of TV sports coverage – the clamor of announcers and graphics – and he suggests that part of his job is filtering out extraneous detail and noise. In fact he talks repeatedly of letting the atmosphere of the game "breathe". He credits this in part to the influence of the English director Grant Best, who worked with ESPN for a couple of years:
In terms of his video and pacing, it actually slowed down a little bit [after Best's arrival]. After a goal scored instead of cut, cut, cut, cut and go faster, it was way more important that before you go to that first replay after the goal, take it slow, breathe in the shots. A bunch of shots that are really fast and don't really give you any indication of the fulfillment of this moment are just wasteful. So I think in certain big moments of the game, less cutting was better. Grant coming on was a big deal for us.
The coverage also developed under an ever better-informed viewership:
An American audience can see the Euros, the World Cup, all the big European leagues. So everyone here who's ever seen a soccer game, knows what a great soccer broadcast is. You can't get away with it – it's much more easy to expose a poor broadcast. And a lot of the hardcore fans are really good about being critical of even some of the smallest things that happen in the broadcast that they don't like. You hear about it for sure - from Twitter, blogs etc.
Back on the roof of Red Bull Arena, I notice that Lalas has a Twitter tab open during the game (he's a prolific and rather whimsical Twitter user), and when I visit the outside broadcast trailer during the second half, assistants are continually checking Twitter feeds. Alexopolous is too busy to look at his feed during the game, but does note that it has become a tool on occasion to prompt discussion on incidents that the announcers haven't dwelt on, but which have ignited debate on social media – something that wouldn't have happened a few years ago. Kweder too, when talking about that "vibrant" ESPN portfolio, is keen to emphasize the launch of ESPNFC.com, which he claims is "dedicating unparalleled resources to the sport on the digital media side".
The digital era has opened up another front for TV coverage. Not only for the interaction between presenters, players and fans, but for the multiple platforms the game can be delivered on and discussed. It used to be that the awarding of broadcast rights might just mean two announcers in a small room in Connecticut, calling a game off tube based on a stream provided by a third party. While versions of that still exist, they have to take place in ever more elaborate frames of interactivity, with broadcast analysis mingling with written coverage online – so while Fox has occasionally been criticised for aspects of its studio shows, it has created an impressive roster of writers and analysts for its online coverage. ESPNFC and NBC's ProSports sites are providing similar analysis and commentary, and a lot of eyes are on how well NBC's extravagant cross-platform coverage for the Premier League works.
Yet the announcer roles are still crucial for setting a tone. For ESPN's MLS coverage, if Lalas is the wide angle lens, Adrian Healey is there for the close ups, providing play by play announcements for the game from behind a folder of post-it notes marked up with stats and trivia for each team. Healey, and color commentator Taylor Twellman, now in his second year, provide play-by-play coverage and incidental analysis respectively. They arrived in the announcer's box via very different routes: Twellman was a formidable striker for the New England Revolution before repeat concussions ended his career early (he now has a foundation, ThinkTaylor, which educates soccer players and fitness staff about concussion and advocates for safe practices). Twellman still suffers from the long term effects of his injuries, and at the time we meet, he hasn't been able to work out in three years. Healey started in hospital radio in England (the pre-podcast proving ground for a generation of aspirational UK DJs), according to his bio. When I remind him of this he laughs:
I think they liked me because I was a pre-pubescent 12-year-old and my high voice carried over their antiquated equipment … I'll always remember my first game – Swindon beat Bury 8-0, so they thought I was good luck and invited me back.
Despite that initial exposure to sports commentary, Healey took a digression into the music industry in the early 90s, as a tour manager for various "shoegazing" bands, before a chance break landed him in the US as an alt rock DJ and ultimately as the voice of New England Revolution, before ESPN came calling. When we talk about the process of his initial arrival in the US, it's a throwback to a largely pre-digital moment of letters and landline calls.
Healey works well with Twellman – the former player is emphatic when he does speak but as he says, "One of the things I want to to do as a game analyst is to not overstep my mark with the play by play guy, and I've learned that by watching a lot of the EPL type announcers, where that analysts doesn't talk a lot – and when he does it's short, sweet and to the point, and they try not to blab on and on about something." Alexopolous notes that when Twellman first arrived at the station, one of the first things he said was "I want to talk less", whereas "sometimes ex-athetes can come in with an attitude of 'I'm here, and I'm here to teach you guys about soccer'. Taylor was eager to learn. So he'll critique his own broadcast after the game and he remembers thoroughly what he did not like about announcers when he was a player, and a fan as well. And he's sticking to that."
Twellman has steadily grown in confidence as he settles into his role, though whether as a player or as an advocate he was never shy about voicing his opinions. When I ask him about his one-time role as a players' union rep, he says it runs in the family:
My grandfather did a lot with the Major League Players Union back in the day, before there was a union and when there was a union, and when I was old enough to have a conversation with him about it, he really was proud of what the union had done for the past players and for the future. He played for the New York Yankees and won two World Series, but he had to have a job in the winter time. I'm not sure how many of the current Yankees do that. And let's be honest there are hardly any players who are going to retire from Major League Soccer and never have to work again.
That's what's interesting about the likes of Lalas and Twellman in particular – there's no sense that they've crossed a great divide by now working in broadcasting the league, as they're still part of a growing but still delicate ecosystem that they've helped build and feel a duty to protect. Their public personas have, in different ways, an evangelical streak about them, often the evangelism of trying to convert existing US soccer fans to broaden their conception of the sport to include the league on their own doorstep. Twellman again:
Let's support our local teams, if you really are a soccer fan. I'm all for it if you follow your second or third team [elsewhere] – I'm cool with it, I don't have a problem with that – but start supporting. This league's growing. The atmosphere, the brand of MLS. It's not a bush league league. There are some growing pains, and I get all that, but you've got to support your local team if you really are a soccer fan, if you ask me.
For all this proactive encouragement, ESPN is also in the business of reacting to existing demographics. A widely discussed ESPN Sports Poll from last year, part of ongoing audience research carried out by North Carolina social scientist Rich Luker, showed that soccer is now the second-most popular sport in the US for 12-24 year olds, and its intense tribalism (Luker says the only comparable groups are "college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead") gives broadcasters at least a solid core to build programming around. One of the other results of the most recent poll was confirmation of the sports popularity among the US Hispanic audience – a fact that is already influencing programming, as Kweder notes when I ask him what ESPN's soccer coverage is going to look like without the Premier League games:
We just enjoyed our best rating ever for a US soccer match with the World Cup qualifier with the USA and Mexico teams the other night. And you'll continue to see a commitment to the US men's national team, as well as a new commitment to the Mexican national team, as we reach the US Hispanic soccer fan who wants to see soccer in our back yard, including Major League Soccer, the US national team and Mexican national team … The numbers for US Hispanics who follow soccer on a regular basis is very high, especially with Spanish-speaking US Hispanics – Spanish-dominant US Hispanics. Where the numbers start to fall a little bit, on the English language side, was something we felt we could take advantage of, because we didn't feel we were giving that segment what they wanted, which was Mexican soccer, so we've addressed that.
Just this week, ESPN announced a new daily highlights program, entitled ESPN FC, to run from August. It'll be interesting to see where the MLS coverage figures in the mix of that show, as ESPN works out its relationship to a domestic league they've had a long, if occasionally difficult relationship with, but which might become a mainstay of their live coverage as the network adjusts to a post Premier League reality. After 2014 the World Cup rights revert to Fox as well, and at this point it would be a mighty shame if the domestic institutional knowledge ESPN have worked hard to acquire did not continue to have an outlet to grow and develop with the game in the US. As it stands the current broadcast deal with MLS runs out next season.
Back at Red Bull Arena, I head down to the production truck to watch the broadcast ending and get one of the most heartening moments of the day. A header goes just wide and even among the production crew there's the familiar sudden intake of breath you hear on terraces throughout the world at a near miss. Alexopolous calls up the replay and on the audio feed Healey's voice has upped in urgency, while a second later Twellman is talking about the space the defence allowed the attacker yet again in this game. But I'm still thinking about that instinctive authentic reaction to the game itself from the staff. Later I mention the moment to Lalas. He sees the chance to make a point:
I'll never forget being in Portland when the Women's World Cup was on and I was in the truck when USA beat Brazil, when Abby Wambach scored that goal at the death. This truck of jaded, older TV guys just went absolutely ballistic – just exploded. It was a wonderful moment to be part of and it just showed this incredible soccer army that for a long time was niche and underground and I don't believe it is anymore. It's come above ground and it is strong, and it is passionate, it is emotional, it is educated and international and global in its outlook – and it will be the mass that takes this game into being one of the major sports in the United States.