By Ronald Blum
The Associated Press
PRETORIA, South Africa — Standing on the sideline — er, touchline — at U.S. soccer practice, Martin Tyler looked on. After more than three decades of broadcasting in England, he was getting ready for his American debut on ESPN.
Enough of the vague soccer commentary by much-maligned Dave O’Brien. For this World Cup, ESPN and ABC brought in the best English-language soccer announcer in the business.
“We have the NFL, we have the NBA, we have the Stanley Cup, all your major sports events are broadcast in this country,” Tyler said by telephone from his home in England before heading to the World Cup. “Nobody has ever sent an Englishman over to do it.”
So just as U.S. sports have American broadcasters much of the time in Britain, the game invented by England will have an all-British flavor for its play-by-play men on U.S. broadcasts this time around.
Authenticity is the buzz word.
ABC and ESPN got bashed for their coverage of the 2006 World Cup and responded by hiring the 64-year-old Tyler, an acclaimed broadcaster for Britain’s Sky Sports, as its lead announced for the tournament in South Africa that opens Friday. He will be joined by Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Ian Darke to create an all-British play-by-play crew for the 64 World Cup matches.
“The decision is a strange one in some ways to me,” said former ABC and ESPN analyst Seamus Malin. “I don’t think you have to be a cheerleader for Americans, but I think you have to a lot of reference places.”
Tyler’s voice is familiar to U.S. soccer fans from his coverage of the English Premier League and the European Champions League, which is relayed regularly on Fox Soccer Channel.
His voice also is known from the EA Sports FIFA video games, where he partners on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 versions with former Scotland forward Andy Gray, another Sky Sports announcer. Gray also will be working for a U.S. network, broadcasting a World Cup studio show in Los Angeles for Fox Soccer Channel.
“I guess the U.S. audience, in fairness, is still learning the game in many ways. It’s taken us 100 years to learn the game and we’re not still sure we’ve got it right,” Gray said with a chuckle.
ESPN/ABC is investing a huge amount in its World Cup coverage, sending 200 people to South Africa to produce the telecasts along with 100 local hires. Among the soccer stars who will be participating are Juergen Klinsmann, Ruud Gullit, Ally McCoist; the network talked with Jose Mourinho, but couldn’t come to terms.
Tyler, who has broadcast every World Cup since 1978, will announce Friday’s opener between South Africa and Mexico with former Nigerian player Efan Ekoku. Tyler will cover Saturday’s high-profile match between the U.S. and England with former American captain John Harkes, who partnered with him for last weekend’s exhibition between the Americans and Australia.
Tyler actually worked in the United States early in his career: He produced the world feed for soccer coverage at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“Most of the really, really, really sort of super duper guys had been allocated to much more American-orientated sports, obviously to track and field and all that stuff,” he said. “I was dispatched somewhere downtown to get a football and in the Rose Bowl I took corners, free kicks, any set-piece situations because the guys, the directors, they went: ‘On a corner, I want the camera to do this.'”
He used to visit the U.S. on holiday in the summer, too, catching up with old soccer buddies such as Bobby Moore and George Best when they played in the North American Soccer League — Best played for the Los Angeles Aztecs.
And he broadcast the 1986 World Series on a delayed basis for the British network ITV.
“I was standing behind the curtain when Bill Buckner let the ball through his legs. I was going to run on and interview him for English TV,” Tyler said. “I remember Gary Carter. I had to ask really basic questions, and he took real care with me and didn’t go, ‘What is this English guy asking me about?'”
Because Game 7 was delayed by rain, Tyler missed it due to soccer commitments back home. He returned to the U.S. to broadcast England’s national team games in Chicago and New Jersey in 2005. During various trips to America, he became familiar with a certain renowned baseball broadcaster.
“I’m a big fan of Vin Scully and I think his anecdotal stuff is sensational,” Tyler said. “But you know, I think baseball people accept if a few pitches go flying in and the ball is up on a screen. He can just break up the story and say ‘2 and 1’ or something like that. And everyone knows, you can’t really do that in football.”
That is likely the biggest difference between British and American announcers. On the olde island, the broadcasters are more restrained, more likely to keep talk to a minimum.
“I’m not sure that it’s a style difference as much as a cultural difference,” said JP Dellacamera, a frequent U.S. national team broadcaster for ESPN who has been relegated to ESPN Radio for the World Cup. “Let’s say British announcers and probably those in other countries, too, I think they talk less than American announcers. I think they talk more about their particular game they’re calling than other games. There’s not as much storytelling, not as much promos.”
ESPN didn’t wind up with four British broadcasters by chance. It was a conscious decision.
“We spent a great deal of time listening to announcers and discussing the various attributes that each had, and ultimately these were the people that we felt were best-equipped to present this event to the United States regardless of whatever accent they might have,” said Jed Drake, the executive producer of ESPN’s World Cup coverage.
Until this year, Tyler had broadcast the World Cup for the Australian network SBS. He lives in London near the Chelsea and Fulham training grounds and estimates he covers about 100 matches per season.
Since he started, the speed of the game has sped up and soccer has become more defensive. The United States has gone from an outsider to a regular World Cup participant.
“I always say, I sit in exactly the same sort of place I sat in December 1974: reasonably good seat on the halfway line,” he said. “My colleagues tease me that everything I did was in black and white, but I’m not that old. Obviously, the monitors have got bigger and the screens have got wider and HD has come in and now 3-D is coming in, but the fact is I still sit there. And when people ask me what I do, people who don’t know me, I shout `goal’ for a living. And that’s what I’ve done. And it’s done with affection and care and respect for the game and the audience.”
Dellacamera, obviously, is aware there are as many different styles to broadcasting a soccer match as there are to playing one. He wouldn’t call a game in the understated British manner no more than he would shout “Goooooaal” in the hyper-excited way of Andres Cantor and other Latin announcers.
“Somebody once told me I should call goals like that,” Dellacamera said. “That’s not our style. That’s not our way. That’s not our culture. That’s theirs. It would be disrespectful of me to call a game that way.”