Four years ago Disney-owned ESPN entered the British market after winning the rights to screen 46 live Premier League matches in the 2009/10 season. The collapse of Setanta certainly gave ESPN an opening but it surely would have only been a matter of time before the broadcaster joined the battle for armchair fans in the UK.
ESPN is probably even more synonymous with sport in the US as Sky is in the UK. Its portfolio includes the rights to games in almost every major sport including US sports such as Major League Baseball, NFL American football, college football and basketball. It has 6,500 employees worldwide and has over 30 years of broadcasting history.
In the UK, ESPN is probably recognised by most for their FA Cup coverage which has given the broadcaster greater visibility to British football fans since they showed their first match in 2010. Their coverage of FA Cup final day last year certainly proved their commitment to fans who would like nothing better than to absorb football’s big day by watching hours of build-up to kick-off. With the game scheduled to start at 5.15pm, ESPN incredibly chose to start their coverage at 8am, whilst ITV began their show just two hours before kick-off. FA Cup final traditions such as the usually dreadful team songs have disappeared over the years but ESPN did manage to revive some old favourites: following the coaches as they travel to Wembley, showing the players getting off the coach and of course interviews with fans outside the stadium.
Andrew Hornett, executive producer of football coverage at ESPN, was a fan of bringing back extended coverage before the cup final despite the logistical concerns: “I think it is terrific for us to do be able to do a 12-hour day live from Wembley. As fans I can think of nothing better than having the FA Cup from 8am to 8pm.
“It is a fairly complicated operation to do show after show all day because you are live the whole time with about 300 people focusing on production.”
The sporting giant looks set to replicate their marathon coverage for this year: “We are already thinking now what we are going to do with the FA Cup final [coverage],” said Hornett.
ESPN invited The Independent to go behind the scenes during their recent coverage of the fourth round tie between Brentford and Chelsea at Griffin Park. Arriving at the stadium at 8am with kick-off still four hours away, preparations were already underway. For outside broadcasting, a mobile unit or vehicle is used, in this case two main match trucks were in operation. They transmit the signal as well as co-ordinate the cameras in the stadium in front of a ‘wall’ of video monitors. The key stages of production, including processing, recording and transmitting footage and audio are dealt with here in these mobile broadcasting centres.
Former Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers, Southampton and England international Graeme Le Saux is now a regular on our television screens. He has had more than just a glimpse into two different worlds of playing and broadcasting football: “What it does make you realise is the amount of people that are involved in the game and the huge effort. I would want current players to see what goes on behind the scenes, just for them to understand the huge effort it takes to give their sport such a high profile.”
For this cup tie ESPN had 90 staff on duty, used 20 cameras and approximately 15 kilometres of cable throughout the stadium. Just to show the game there has to be agreement between the Football Association, the clubs, the police, the local authorities and the various broadcasters.
The final production meeting ends before 9am, two hours before the build-up starts live at 11am with the game set for a midday kick-off. Former BBC reporter Rebecca Lowe is presenting today with Ray Stubbs fronting the other FA Cup game shown live by the Disney-owned broadcaster on the same channel.
Lowe began her preparation a few days ago but still arrived at 7am to run-through storylines and topics to be discussed with her guests later. Lowe describes the differences between working for ESPN compared to her experience at the BBC: “On a commercial channel like Setanta or ESPN you can be more audience specific because people watching and subscribing will be football fans. It gives you more freedom because you can assume knowledge.
“You can’t take as many risks on the BBC as you can on ESPN I think.
“ESPN is a massive but you only realise that when you go to America. There is a real motto at ESPN which I have never experienced anywhere else, which is to serve the fan.”
Lowe is passionate about and is in her element when presenting an FA Cup game: “The FA Cup to me is what football is all about.
”It's what I grew up loving. My earliest memory is of Crystal Palace reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup and watching that in 1990 at home realising what football can do emotionally to you.“
Presenting live during an FA Cup game though is where Lowe experienced her worst moment in her career: ”I was presenting when Fabrice Mumaba collapsed [after suffering a cardiac arrest during last year's FA Cup quarter-final between Bolton and Tottenham]. That was the hardest thing that has happened because it was something that you didn't expect when you woke up in the morning. That was horrible to experience and I will never forget how that felt. That was the toughest and the worst thing.“
Live TV also can cause problems in terms of schedules. Floodlight failure or a serious injury to a player – leading to an extending stoppage - could affect an entire day of programming. ESPN only use one channel for live British sports. ESPN Classic has been used on occasion to screen live content when problems have arisen though.
“Today we have got a 12pm kick-off and a 2pm kick-off [Leeds United versus Tottenham on the same channel], if we had something major that happened here that delayed this game... the knock-on effect [to programming schedule] is a major concern,” says Hornett.
”Everything can go wrong,“ he admits. ”It is live television and things do go wrong. Cameras can break, VT machines can break. You try and make sure that you are backed up in every area. You check everything. Sometimes you check everything again and then you go on air and it doesn't work anymore. That can happen.“
A trademark of ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup has been pitchside panel. Essentially rather than presenting from a studio the panel take their table onto the pitch before kick-off and at half-time. This has been a successful innovation which has taken the fans closer to the action.
“We go to places maybe other TV companies haven’t gone,” says Hornett. “When you do something different you always face criticism and that’s inevitable. We believe we were right for FA Cup matches to be pitchside, to try to get behind the scenes and to try to get into dressing rooms. We feel we have taken the fan a little step closer to what’s going on. I think being pitchside has been a great addition to our coverage.”
Broadcasters operating in the UK still do not have the kind of access to teams that ESPN enjoys in the US. For instance in the US rival NFL coaches meet producers and directors separately to talk them through their tactics and suggest areas of the pitch the production team could focus their cameras on.
Lowe would like this to change: “I would try to get more access to players and managers. I would love there to be more trust between footballers, managers and broadcasters.
“There isn’t that same feeling between the broadcasters and athletes here as there is in the States.”
“We are getting better access over time,” says Hornett. “Perhaps we are behind in this country in terms of access. I think it is our job to break down those barriers.”
It is clear the ESPN staff here at Brentford’s stadium, despite their different upbringings either in the US or UK, genuinely love the FA Cup. On this occasion the League One side produce a shock with a deserved 2-2 draw against the European Champions. The game today and the replay against the Premier League club could end up earning Brentford around £1million.
The FA Cup in recent years has suffered as the bigger clubs have prioritised their Premier League and Champions League commitments but it seems they are beginning to realise that the oldest domestic competition in the world brings football back to the fans.
Hornett shares this sentiment: “I think clubs are realising that the FA Cup does mean so much, it’s not just about money but it means an awful lot to the fans. I think that’s so important in the modern era that it’s not about just money, that it is about the fans and it is about our heritage.”