Behind the scenes of ESPN's new daily soccer TV show
For years, soccer fans in America wanted a daily show on a mainstream TV channel. Now they have one.
Behind the scenes of ESPN’s new daily soccer TV show
BRISTOL, Conn. - So I was at ESPN on Wednesday and I was hanging out with a half-dozen or so of their soccer pundits, and we were watching Chelsea-Aston Villa and Fehnerbaçe-Arsenal on two big-screen TVs and -
Okay, we get it, you're friends with Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas and the rest and we don't need to hear about it any more than we already do.
Wait a minute, I can explain. I was there for ESPN's football (not soccer) media day, doing stories on analysts' views of concussions in the NFL and coaches who lie to you, and then I went to do some interviews with their soccer people and -
Some of us in the real world couldn't even watch one of the games on Wednesday, much less both at the same time, alright?
Yes, I have had it really good of late. I'm humbled and thrilled by having had the opportunity to visit the studios of NBC Sports and ESPN in a five-day span.
And I appreciate everyone who has said nice things to me about my stories on the cottage industry that soccer on TV has become. I didn't exactly intend to get as deep into this stuff as I have, but I've enjoyed it and I'd like to think it has added something consequential to how we talk about soccer in America.
I also think it's important to introduce you to the people behind the scenes who have a huge role in how you consume soccer as a TV viewer.
You've seen me mention ESPN's Chris Alexopoulous and Amy Rosenfeld and NBC's Pierre Moossa and Shaw Brown before. They set the tone for broadcasts of MLS, U.S. national team and other games on their respective networks. You should know their names, because they matter as much as the on-air talent.
(And as you've seen on here before, the on-air talent will tell you the exact same thing.)
In the past, I've looked at how one soccer game gets produced, and how a seven-and-a-half-hour day of games gets produced. On Wednesday, I tried to answer a different question: How do you produce just half an hour of content?
As you might suspect, it's not so easy. When there's a day worth of action around the world in the world's most popular game, it takes a lot to shoehorn everything - including commercial breaks - into 30 minutes.
It also takes something to convince television executives to set aside 30 minutes five days a week, and 60 minutes on Sundays, to devote to soccer on an all-sports channel.
So when this happened back in May, a lot of people took notice:
For years we've pushed our bosses, saying: "Wouldn't it be great if we had a highlights show?" And now we have one. http://t.co/c3arp1alNU— Marc Connolly (@mconnolly10) May 14, 2013
On August 11th, "ESPN FC on TV" made its debut. Even though it's impossible to please every soccer fan in America, the show has played to largely good reviews so far.
I got to watch a recording of the show while I was in Bristol, and I talked to some key people who work on the show behind the scenes. Here's what I saw.
Most weekdays, the show airs at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. Wednesday was a bit different because ESPN2 was showing the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. So the show aired late at night, and recording segments was scattered over the afternoon.
I got to the soccer part of ESPN's sprawling headquarters a bit after 3:00 p.m. There are 5,000 people spread across over a dozen buildings on the "campus." The soccer people are in one part of one floor in one building.
Midway through the first half, Lalas got up to head down to the studio where the show is recorded, and I followed him. I couldn't tell you how I got to the studio, but I can at least confirm that I got there.
Twellman showed up soon thereafter to tape a segment with Lalas. The former Revolution striker had to call the Atlético-Barça game from the studio at 4:00, so they didn't have much time to waste.
The segment in question was a "Hot or Not" feature about various people making news in MLS. It involved the big touch screen monitor you've seen Twellman mention on Twitter recently. Having seen it up close, I can confirm Twellman's reports that it is a very nice gadget to have.
While rehearsing for the shoot, Twellman noticed aloud that some stats were wrong for one of the featured players. At the back of the studio, ESPN stats guru Paul Carr popped his head up over a wall and said he'd make the fix.
You all know Carr as the master of posting obtuse soccer stats on Twitter. In-house, he sets up a lot of the graphics you see on the daily soccer show, SportsCenter and elsewhere.
I walked back to where Carr was standing. Lo and behold there was a full-scale desk set up behind that wall, with a desktop, a laptop, an audio mixing box (which also serves as an internal communication system), two TV monitors (one of which was split into 10 smaller screens) and a printer.
This was not a bad place to be.
The studio also had two larger TV screens, set at opposite corners from each other. After a few minutes, the assembled group - which also included Max Bretos, Steve Nicol and some cameramen - got Chelsea-Aston Villa on one TV and Fehnerbaçe-Arsenal on the other.
As I said above, this was not a bad place to be.
Having said that, both of the games above were on non-ESPN channels. You all probably know that ESPN likes to focus on its own properties. A lot.
But here we were watching NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1. Carr's desk had feeds from even more games, and he had access to every soccer channel you could imagine.
(The rest of us wonder at times if the Bundesliga actually exists.)
I don't know all that many people who work on other sports at ESPN, except for college football and college basketball. I do know a lot of soccer people, and I can tell you this: they are soccer people as much as they are ESPN people. Just like everyone else, they will watch any channel that has a game.
And they generally want everyone to do well, because it grows the sport in this country. Soccer people across the sports networks in the U.S. are pretty nice to each other, and it's not faked. Again, I can't speak too much sports beyond soccer, but it's not something I see as much in other areas.
One of the reasons I bring this up is that Wednesday was a pretty neat day for soccer fans in America. Between NBCSN and Fox Sports 1, there was a combined potential audience reach of some 160 million people.
These games weren't on specialty soccer channels, and the Spanish Super Cup game wasn't either. They were on some of the most widely-distributed cable TV channels in the nation. That's a sign of the sport's growth in this country.
Anyway, back to the show. While I was over by Carr's desk, I heard the voice of producer Piet van Leer giving orders that went in the earpieces of the on-air talent. I couldn't tell where it was coming from until I found a small speaker near the audio mixing box.
At one point, Bretos and Lalas were talking back to the control room about how Bretos would throw from the desk to Twellman. Once that was settled, there was silence. It was time to record. I ducked back behind the wall and watched the action unfold.
The segment was lively and only a little bit scripted. They did one rehearsal before recording, and they did the recording in one take. I have done a fair number of video standups for Philly.com and I can tell you that I have not done many of them in one take.
Yes, Twellman and Lalas work in television for a living, but I was still suitably impressed.
Once the segment ended, I chatted with Carr for a few minutes about the nature of his work with the show. You can read the interview below.
I was particularly interested in the software that Carr uses to build graphics. The program is built in-house, by and for ESPN. There's a wide selection of templates that are customized by sport. All Carr had to do was pick the template, put the numbers and names in the right places, set a few drop-down boxes and voilà.
Or at least that's what it looked like in the moment. It's not actually that easy, but the system is designed to get stuff done fast. Creating the graphic should be the easy part after you figure out the length of Newcastle United's losing streak in games they've trailed at halftime.
Later in the afternoon, I spent some time in the control room. While I was down there, Bretos was taping an interview segment with London-based journalist Gabriele Marcotti.
(A quick aside: Marcotti is a Penn alum and a diehard Eagles fan. He's yet another example of the strange places where you'll find people with Philly ties.)
There were six people in the control room, including van Leer. Show director Joel Molinsky was calling the shots on bringing up graphics and changing camera angles. I didn't count the number of switches, but if you do some time you'll get to a pretty big number. Molinsky called each of them out, one by one.
At the other end of the same table, van Leer was in the talent's ears, telling them how much time was left in segments. In the middle, coordinating producer Steven Palese brought everything together. You can read an interview with Palese below.
Everything I saw ran quickly and smoothly. A few takes had to be re-done here and there, but there wasn't anything dramatic.
That's the point, of course. When you have to assemble the same product every day, you want to make the process part of it as easy as possible. That goes for television, radio, newspapers, websites, or anything else.
If you haven't noticed any of what I've written about above while watching the show, I'd say things have gone pretty well. Now you know what goes on behind the scenes. Hopefully you learned something that you didn't know before.
Here are the interviews with Palese. I think what they told me will answer a lot of the questions I've seen viewers raise about the show, especially when it comes to editorial priorities.
Paul Carr, ESPN Stats and Research soccer expert
It's one thing to produce a single game or a day of coverage. How hard is it to assemble a half-hour news show?
I think the trick for 30 minutes is - well, first of all, 30 minutes is really 22 minutes of content. The trick is just picking out your best stories. Sometimes it's obvious. If Gareth Bale gets transferred [from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid], that's an obvious A-block story.
With these midweek games, it's fairly easy to spotlight when there are teams like Chelsea and Arsenal.
It does get tough, though. You have to cherry-pick your best stories. Sometimes it comes down to what your analysts want. If they have strong opinions or strong takes on certain stories or games, then you want those.
There's no magic answer. You just start at the top and see how far down you can go.
How much preparation time is there for a weekday show?
We have our first meeting at 10:30 a.m. We usually start taping at around 4:00, so that's five-and-a-half hours before. Some shows might have a little more, some might have a little less. We're in here for about two hours taping things.
The show is a unique because it's a 30-minute show, but it almost feels like an hour show because you have to do segments for the international and U.S. audiences, and ESPNFC.com.
The show is taped before it gets broadcast on most days. It's still early, but have you done any live-to-air segments yet?
Yeah, we've definitely done some stuff live. After the Manchester City game on Monday definitely was. We do what we can beforehand, as it just saves trouble with servers crashing or fonts or whatever. But during the week especially, there are certain things you have to do live.
On our first show [August 11], there were some things we were going to do live. But we had server issues and just ended up running taped segments.
We'll do live what we need to, and we'll tape what we can. It also depends on when we have journalists from Europe on. We want to get them done earlier, because it's midnight or whatever over there. We can have a lot of different balls in the air.
The American soccer public is full of, to put it one way, picky eaters. You probably can't satisfy all of them all of the time. What sets the tone of the show in terms of what teams or leagues get higher priority?
For example, the MLS people want MLS to be at the top because it's the American league, and the EPL people want to be at the top because it has more fans. And it goes on and on.
You can't please everybody, but we try to reflect the general interest of the American soccer fan. We know the Premier League is the most popular of the European leagues, and we know when the U.S. national team is playing that's the number one story.
And then we work with ESPNFC.com, and see what their big stories are. Because that's trying to reflect the American soccer fans well.
We just try to have a good feel for it. It's relatively intuitive. You've got England at the top, and the upper echelons of Spain, Germany and Italy. Everyone is always going to say we want more French league, or Bundesliga or Spanish league farther down the table.
One thing that I've noticed is that ESPN has boosted the amount of soccer it televises in the United States as the popularity of the U.S. men's national team has grown. This program was launched at a time when ratings for national team games have risen in a big way. Is that a coincidence?
I don't think so. I'll go back to my soccer roots - I was 14 when the World Cup was here in 1994, and that kind of kick-started things. I think that American team, for a lot of people, is the first emotional tie to soccer that they've had.
People don't necessarily have direct ties to England, and a lot of people don't have direct ties to a MLS team. But everyone is on the side of the American team, and I think that's where it starts for a lot of people.
And then if you're like me, you gradually expand: you add MLS, you add whatever league in Europe, you add the UEFA Champions League, you add whatever you can see on TV. I think for a lot of people, it starts with that American team, and that's what's kind of in your soul more than any other team.
On the flip side, how important is it to deliver footage that people will not have seen? I think in particular of the Bundesliga and other leagues that aren't widely-distributed in the U.S.
I think it matters. I think especially, as you said, with the Bundesliga you have Munich and Dortmund that are very good, and the games aren't easy to see. People want to see those things. I think most people don't know where to find the French league, so if we can show some PSG goals, or something like that it's a good thing.
It's important to show the top teams in the top leagues, because we're trying to give everyone a one-stop shop for the best highlights of the day or of the week. The fact that they maybe can't see some games makes it a little more exciting for us to get them in the show.
Steven Palese, coordinating producer for "ESPN FC on TV"
Talk about the challenge of producing a 30-minute show relative to a game or a day of games.
I think especially in the United States, where there are so many different types of fans that are interested in so many different leagues, the hardest part is paring that down into a half-hour every day.
Sometimes during the week it's a little bit easier when there aren't as many games, but especially on a Monday or on a day when there's Champions League and other stuff going on, you really have to go with what you think is going to appeal to the widest audience.
With the show it's great that we have a guide in ESPNFC.com, so we have a lot of numbers on what creates the most interest. We try to be a reflection of the site on television, so that helps set the editorial agenda.
How many people work on the show in total, would you say?
This is a unique show in that there's a ton of talent. There are probably 25 such people who work on the show from around the world - reporters, analysts and the two hosts in Dan Thomas and Max Bretos. The idea is that on different days we have different people talking about the big stories.
We'll have people on from one to four days in a week depending on what's going on.
In terms of our production team, it's pretty small. The core that's here every day is between five and seven people, and then there are another five people involved every day as directors and graphics operators.
It's a small team, and we operate from what's called an "ignite control room." That means the director is actually doing the job of several different people. He's in control of the audio, he's in control of switching, he's in control of playing video. So it's a different kind of operation, but it works.
A lot of the talent are familiar names to American audiences. You have guys like Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman who are involved in MLS. You have guys like Sid Lowe, Raphael Honigstein and Gabriele Marcotti who are internationally-renowned journalists.
You also have guys like Shaka Hislop and Dan Thomas, who are veterans with ESPN International but are new to American viewers. As you were creating the show, how important was it to bring those guys to this stage?
For us it's kind of a challenge to introduce people to who these guys are. Not just when it comes to being on the show, but what these guys used to be. Steve Nicol's a great example. We got calls to interview all the time from Liverpool newspapers when the show was on in the United Kingdom.*
Yet here, people just remember him as the guy who used to coach the New England Revolution. So you'll see that during the show, we'll put up graphics with guys' résumés to explain who they were as players.
Obviously, the Premier League is a big part of the show, and it's important for us to have guys who played in the Premier League as part of it.
And it's not just the Premier League - you're also seeing the introduction of talent like Alejandro Moreno. People in the U.S. might not be familiar with him, but he's doing a lot more for us, with Liga MX and Mexican national team games.**
Our philosophy is that to cover the sport properly, we need to have a wide array of talent who come from different backgrounds. My take is that fans want to hear the right people talking about the right games.
* - Palese also produced the old Press Pass studio show that was broadcast for years on ESPN International, and on ESPN UK when it existed.
** - You know Moreno plenty well already, of course. He played for the Union in 2010 and now does color commentary for the team's local TV broadcasts.
You mentioned the Premier League, and I want to key on an element of that with the show. One of the things that I know sunk ESPN's past attempts to have a daily soccer show was the cost of acquiring rights to show highlights.
For this show, you struck a deal with NBC to get rights to show highlights from all games. You also show highlights from the Bundesliga and other leagues. All of that carries a cost. Talk about that investment and what it means for what you want the show to be.
On our Sunday show, the idea is to show goals from as many different leagues as we can. Everybody loves goals. And we recognize that people don't necessarily have the time to sit through seven hours of the Premier League, like you and I might, and then go right into La Liga.
So the idea is for us to provide it all in a neat package where we're showing everything that everybody wanted to see from the weekend. Even though it's an hour long, between Serie A, the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, MLS - and throw in some Brazil - that eats up the hour in a hurry.
What we're trying to do is show everybody the best possible highlights as we can. Otherwise you have to do a show that is more discussion-based.
In terms of the tone that the show takes, the American soccer public has a lot of factions that want what they want. If you put one first and another second, somebody feels slighted. In particular as regards highlighting American soccer versus the rest of the world, what is the tone you want to set?
I think it's a balance between both. A lot of what you might read online from people's comments, I don't know if that fully represents soccer fans in the U.S. You have people who like the Premier League and you have people who like MLS, but I also believe there's a big crossover between those.
And I believe there are a lot of people who are also interested in Barcelona and Real Madrid. We all know these things to be true. It's trying to find the way to appeal to the widest swath of that audience. I know it's impossible to make everybody happy, but each week you attack it the best way that you can.
We know that the Premier League is very popular. We also know that the U.S. national team is hugely popular. So last week, we sent Roger Bennett to Bosnia and he was with the U.S. team. They were great - we got an interview with Jurgen Klinsmann. We're trying to show a commitment to covering the U.S. national team, which we feel kind of brings the whole thing together.
We're trying to do the whole thing, and we realize that there will be some groups of people who will say you should do more of this or more of that, but we're really trying to pay off everything.
In the first week of the show, as regards MLS, we had a live shot with Clint Dempsey on Monday and we had Omar González on Friday. I think we've shown that we're committed to covering both European and domestic football.