Why doesn’t US coverage of soccer include more US voices? | US television industry

Anyone who’s watched soccer live in the United States will be familiar with him: the English fan, always a male, who’s tediously insistent that by right of birth he knows more than anyone else on the face of the earth about the sport.

Lurching up from the bar or dropping into the group chat at the invitation of some naive administrator, he’ll never miss a moment to remind everyone that the league leaders have benefited from an easy run, that Ben White’s haircut should be the real talking point of the Premier League title race so far, that football has laws rather than rules, that many Manchester United fans are not from Manchester (this point must be emphasized with a grim relentlessness), that pre-relegation early 2000s West Ham was way better than the Moyesian vintage, that Graham Potter is better than Ange Postecoglou, that Seaman and James were better than Alisson and Ederson, that “actually, Chelsea’s back four in the 1998 Winners’ Cup was the best that English football has ever seen”.

On and on he’ll go, unrelenting in the face of no tangible engagement. Wherever there is talk of football, in whatever part of the world it might take place, this man will be lying, lurking, waiting for an opening to unleash that shudderingly boring anecdote about the pie he ate the day of Stevie G’s slip.

This sketch comes with all the ritual disclaimers: not every Englishman is like this, some of my best friends are English football supporters, etc. Perhaps the endurance of the English know-it-all is simply the cost of doing business as a fan of the beautiful game: wherever the conversation turns to soccer throughout the English-speaking world, the cultural primacy of England looms large.

In one sense this is understandable: Britain is the home of the sport, and the English Premier League is the Best League In The World™. In another sense it’s a little surprising: the runaway success of the Premier League owes a lot, arguably, to the global supremacy of the English language, a position entirely attributable to the US’s economic, military and cultural hegemony. Beyond the thrills and the spills, the tricks and the flicks, the high-scoring goalfests and the ropy energy of “rainy Tuesday nights at Stoke”, the Premier League works so successfully as a cultural export because it belongs to, and is communicated through, the universal language of English.

Nowhere is America’s strange deference to English voices and authority on footballing matters more stark than on TV.

Almost two and a half centuries on from the Declaration of Independence, the US remains a footballing nation in thrall to the old English plum. Across all the major soccer networks, English voices, accents and perspectives remain a dominant presence in American coverage of the sport, extending out from the Robbie Mustoes and Jamie Carraghers of the broadcasting center to all those Nigel Reo-Cokers, Ray Hudsons and Warren Bartons of the televisual periphery. In this solar system, even the lesser planets come with an English accent.

Some of these voices, let’s be clear, are good and interesting and wise and measured. But some get by on Englishness alone, and others are plain awful: Fox’s Barton, whose only seeming footballing insight is to encourage the players on the field to “put the ball in an area”, is among the most agricultural commentators working in English today, mid-80s Wimbledon made into flesh and voice. Surely US soccer fans deserve better.

Why doesn’t American coverage of soccer include more American voices?

The answer might be that American voices simply aren’t good enough. Fox Sports’s abysmal coverage of the 2022 men’s World Cup was a powerful demonstration of how truly thin America’s homegrown broadcasting ranks are when it comes to soccer, a month-long festival of cringe whose punishing aggregate effect, from the charmless monotone of Landon Donovan to the boyish squeaks of Rob Stone, was what I imagine solitary confinement to be like. Perhaps America is simply destined to produce, whenever it tries its hand at footballing “bants”, a man like Alexi Lalas, who’s never had a thought so interesting that it did not need to be repeated on air at maximum volume three hundred times.

For anyone hoping that America’s soccer networks might produce a commentary catchphrase as memorable as NBA announcer Mike Breen’s “BAAAANG, from downtown!”, Fox Sports has offered a convincing case for the negative: JP Dellacamera responding to any kind of on-field feint or jink with the flaccid cry of “He dekes!”

Rebecca Lowe, left, Robbie Earle, center, and Robbie Mustoe, right, bring a forensic earnestness to NBC’s Premier League coverage. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

NBC, US broadcaster of the Premier League, has always tried to inject a note of Americanness into proceedings but the results have been similarly limp. The overall package, to be fair, is sharp. In the anchor’s role Rebecca Lowe is brisk and upbeat and efficient, conveying the distinct impression that she’s the type of person who could run anything – a classroom, a pilates studio, a restaurant – like it’s the navy. The two Robbies – Earle and Mustoe – bring a forensic earnestness to bear on their analysis of the on-field action. And the actual match commentary, piped in from Peter Drury, Lee Dixon, and Graeme le Saux, is as good as any.

But from there things start to go wrong. Phil Neville, the rare managerial specimen who’s managed to bring his gift for failure to two different continents, has inexplicably been enlisted as a match-day pundit. (NBC: if you can’t make it anywhere, you can make it there.) Tim Howard, NBC’s resident American, seems like a nice guy but as an analyst, he’s unfortunately a Donovan-esque plank.

Does any of this matter? If the objective is to develop and deepen a distinctly American soccer culture, I think it does: voices and on-air personalities contribute as much to a sport’s social vitality as performances on the field do. As long as US soccer coverage is dominated by English accents, the sport here will always be seen as something of a foreign object.

Howard, Donovan and Clint Dempsey, another network regular, are among the best players American soccer has ever produced, and some of the worst sporting pundits American TV has ever seen. Is there something about American soccer players that makes them preternaturally boring and safe off the field (the Christian Pulisic effect, let’s call it) where so many of the other stars of US sports, from Travis Kelce and Aaron Rodgers to Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green, are overflowing with quips and opinions?

Personalities are the lifeblood of sports broadcasting but for whatever reason, American soccer just doesn’t seem to have a lot of them. CBS Sports’s new Golazo Network, a 24-hour digital channel devoted exclusively to soccer, is a valiant attempt to develop new talent, but its diner-menu approach to programming – every option for every customer – is bewildering and seems unlikely to give individual contributors the time and confidence they need to cement themselves as fixtures in the popular footballing consciousness.

If there’s one show in US soccer broadcasting that unfailingly gets things right, it’s the CBS Champions League bonanza, which has a good claim to being considered the best football program in the English-speaking world today.

Kate Abdo spent much of last year’s World Cup in Qatar stuck on a couch opposite Chad Ochocinco, bravely trying to coax a personality out of a man with no discernible wit, charisma, sense of communicable fun or insight into the sport of association football – the media equivalent of trying to break down a Sean Dyche side that’s stuck 10 men behind the ball. Her penance complete, Abdo has now been granted entry into sports TV heaven: a place on the CBS Champions League set opposite Thierry Henry, Jamie Carragher, and Micah “Big Meeks” Richards.

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From the anchor’s chair, in lightly Americanized English, Abdo keeps the action moving at the pace of a good screwball comedy. The show works because it’s fun, as all discussion of sport ultimately should be, and because it makes the most of each contributor’s skills: Abdo’s gift for the sisterly jab, Richards’s booming laugh and talent for mock outrage (“FAT SHAMING AGAIN??”), Carragher’s needling and Henry’s derision.

The dynamic that drives the show is the contrast between Henry and Richards. Henry is, if you’ll excuse the 1990s pun, the French prince of dead air, a man who is able to let the double take, the side eye, the withering glare and the strategically deployed silence say more than words ever could. He’s as much a master of televisual non-verbalization as he was once a genius of movement off the ball. (For any other footballer there’s a contractual limit to the amount of praise a sportswriter can commit to print; for Henry no superlatives will ever be enough.) Without Titi on set, all those belly laughs and explosions of verbal excitement that come from Meeks’s end of the panel might start to grate.

Thierry Henry is a master of televisual non-verbalization.
Thierry Henry is a master of televisual non-verbalization. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The show features no Americans but often broadcasts from the US and seems – in its combination of hijinks, roasting, glamor and internationalism, in its sense that football and life are nothing more than a grand performance – unmistakably of this place, the kind of televisual alloy that only America could produce. If there’s a lesson to be taken from the success of CBS’s Champions League coverage, it’s that the ideal on-air talent ratio for coverage of soccer on US screens today is as follows: 1 mid-Atlantic presenter to 1 Frenchman to 1 citizen of the people’s republic of Liverpool to 1 Englishman. Anything else and the magic just doesn’t spark.

Does live soccer simply sound better to English speakers when experienced through an English accent? Are English voices a superior fit for a sport invented in England?

Not necessarily: commentary in other sports that trace their origins to England has evolved to accommodate a chorus of different accents and approaches. Modern cricket’s idiom is as much, probably more, the product of Australian, Indian, South African and Caribbean voices as it is the work of the toffs, northerners and Irishmen who dominate the cricketing airwaves in the UK; the best tennis commentator at work today might be Nick Kyrgios, the polar opposite of a genteel Englishman.

Football commentary in other languages unsettles the cultural power of the old colonial master over its former possessions. In Spanish, the most recognizable voice in football coverage is not from Spain but Argentina: Andrés Cantor, the man who invented the elongated “Goooool!” call and became famous all over again last year for his weeping repetition of “Argentina, campeón del mundo” on the full-time whistle at Lusail Stadium. Meanwhile Cantor’s countryman Jorge Valdano is arguably the sport’s most intellectually stimulating commentator at work in any language, Spanish or otherwise.

The difference between these cases and soccer as it’s spoken into being in the English language is success: Latin America is a powerhouse of world football; great tennis players emerge from anywhere; Australia and India are the two best nations in world cricket. England, by contrast, is far stronger at men’s soccer than any other anglophone nation, which gives its pundits a chinny authority when it comes to commentary on the sport.

It’s a very different story in women’s soccer, of course, and the genuinely global nature of coverage of the women’s game in English shows how success can shift the linguistic balance of power on TV as effectively as it realigns matters on the pitch.

Until the USMNT gets its act together and starts making itself a regular presence in the final four of the World Cup, English voices seem likely to remain a fixture of soccer coverage on American TV. As long as Big Meeks and Titi stick it out on CBS, the dominion should be tolerable.

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