'We have created a new nostalgia': ESPN in 12-hour homage to FA Cup final as BT launches attack on Sky

The Independent's Majid Mohamed goes behind the scenes at Wembley

Four years ago Disney-owned sports broadcaster 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 gave ESPN an opening for the broadcaster to join the battle for armchair fans in the UK. 78 games later and more changes are on the way.

Next season a new player will be challenging BSkyB for sports rights as telecoms giant BT shows Premier League football for the first time. BT will acquire ESPN’s UK and Ireland TV channels business and their live sports rights portfolio, including the FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League, Uefa Europa League, and German Bundesliga. An ESPN-branded channel will continue on television next season but it will be operated by BT.

BT Sports will be set-up in time for the 2013-14 season with 38 live games from the Barclays Premier League as its showpiece. BT is launching an audacious gamble by offering the Premier League games for free to its broadband customers. BT’s £1bn-plus TV foray, which includes coverage of other sports such as rugby and women's tennis, is set to be a heavyweight bout for live sports rights with BSkyB.

ESPN is probably even more synonymous with sport in the US as BSkyB 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 arguable most recognised for its FA Cup coverage which has given the broadcaster greater visibility to British football fans since they showed their first match in 2010. Ross Hair, managing director, ESPN, Europe, Middle East and Africa, explains the importance of the competition to the sports network: “The FA Cup Final has a special place in the hearts of football fans everywhere and our all-day, on-site coverage is an illustration of the passion we have for football’s greatest domestic football competition.”

ESPN’s coverage of FA Cup final day for the past three years 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 games scheduled to start at 5.15pm, ESPN incredibly chose to start coverage at 8am, whilst the ITV broadcast began just two hours before kick-off. ESPN have also managed 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.

“I think it's given us a huge advantage over others and we're also able to go ad free. It's a very simple mantra to say 'serve the fans' and if you just think as a fan all the time, it really makes decision-making very easy and I've gone, 'I don't want adverts'. Then we've worked out that we don't need to show adverts, why not serve the fan better? That gives us a huge advantage over terrestrial channels.

“Today is possibly the longest ever build-up to an FA Cup final and the thing I found amusing about that is, I've gone round to all the producers, and each show has a different producer, and each one of them's gone, 'Oh, I want more time'. I think if you break it down into different elements and you have a priority and you try to reflect moods throughout the day and entertain, then I think it's actually very easy to fill that time.”

Hornett believes ESPN has succeeded as a brand in the UK as sports fans regard the sports network part of the ‘big three’ along with Sky and the BBC. For ESPN though, one of the biggest challenges of entering the UK market initially was the notion that the Disney-owned broadcaster was American: “Trying to establish a believable British brand [was a challenge], most people thought of ESPN as an American brand but this was a British channel. Getting the right people and a British tone was a challenge but it was overcome fairly quickly,” says Hornett.

ESPN invited The Independent to go behind the scenes during their mammoth 12-hour coverage of the ‘David versus Goliath’ FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic. Programming started at 8am and ended at 8pm after the trophy presentation and analysis of the result. The final was broadcast without advertising from 4.45pm with kick-off at 5.30pm. Over 350 people worked on the site, with 42 cameras used and 39 different presenters, reporters, commentators and guests employed for the coverage. 

For outside broadcasting, a mobile unit or vehicle is used, in this case three 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. ESPN filmed at eight different locations around Wembley using over 30,000 feet of cable.

The team will be split-up from next season with many permanent employees of the television arm being given the opportunity to move across to BT as the telecoms giant operates an ESPN-branded channel.

“Some people are going to BT, some people are going elsewhere. TV's a fairly small world, sports TV is very small and I think lots of people move on to different companies, that happens,” says Hornett. “I think I could walk into the ITV truck and know everybody as much as I know everybody in the ESPN truck. I think generally there's sport to be covered, programmes to be made and I think we have a really good team and I expect them all to find really good jobs.”

A trademark of ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup has been the 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.

Hornett believes you can create something different when broadcasting the world’s oldest cup competition: We tried to get in amongst the action, not just on the pitch but behind the scenes too. It’s possible with the FA Cup to innovate more than in the Premier League. We have had the opportunity to innovate in the FA Cup whilst perhaps innovation in the Premier League has been more subtle.

“The FA Cup by its nature is good for any broadcaster.”

“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.”

Hornett on some highlights these past three years: “I love FA Cup final day! I think getting on air [was a highlight]. The first one was getting into a job and being told that we've got Premier League and you're on air in six weeks. I think that first day on air were highlights but we've had some fun along the way like Cup upsets.

Finally - with their 12-hour FA Cup final coverage, dressing room interviews and pitchside panel – has ESPN revived interest in the famous competition?

“I think ESPN has taken the FA Cup and created a new nostalgia. We have created a new history for the FA Cup,” says Hornett.

Ending your coverage with one of the great stories of modern times, as Wigan defeated the 2012 Premier League champions 1-0 at Wembley, certainly helps.

ESPN will still be available in the UK next season with a channel operated by BT as well as its online presence.

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