ESPN’s O’Brien Vs. The Ants

Posted in Football, Sports TV at 12:52 pm by

From USA Today’s Michael Hiestand (link courtesy Tom Enstice)

Dave O’Brien, the play-by-play announcer paired with analyst Marcelo Balboa on ABC/ESPN’s lead World Cup soccer on-air team, says he faced hostility talking about balls hitting heads, not bats. “I’m a baseball guy,” says O’Brien, who calls ESPN baseball. “And that’s a dirty word among soccer enthusiasts. There was a backlash before I did a single game.” That happened in January. Online and elsewhere, soccer die-hards weren’t welcoming.

O’Brien warns that talking about the prejudice he faced “is a dangerous story to write.” (Dangerous being a relative term: Writing this doesn’t seem like reporting from Iraq.) “There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited. … And they’re not really the audience we want to reach anyway.”

Networks airing big events most Americans don’t follow Ëœ such as Olympic events Ëœ usually assume viewers need human interest touches to stay tuned. That can seem dumb or distracting to aficionados.

Announcers in soccer-mad countries can be minimalist, O’Brien says, but he’s “introducing story-telling elements. And that antsy clique I’m talking about doesn’t want that or any effort to entertain.”

U.S. soccer TV ratings, outside the Cup, are microscopic. And, O’Brien says, “If we cater to the clique, they’ll stay there. Soccer hasn’t been presented well to guys like me who played it in high school and are raising daughters on travel teams.”

Actually, “announcers in soccer-mad countries” are often anything but minimalist. The difference being, they’re (ideally) offering play-by-play and analysis of the match taking place, as opposed to a hastily researched, Cliff’s Notes version of recent football history. O’Brien’s baseball background is neither here nor there, but if he called a baseball game and got players’ names wrong and offered little in the way of useful information other than mentioning the score that was already onscreen, he’d be slaughtered by those viewers, too.

The game itself is entertaining. And O’Brien could do a lot worse than take a crash course from some of these supposedly minimalist announcers. Even in soccer-crazed territories, the World Cup attracts mainstream viewers who pay casual attention, if any, to domestic or continental competition. When their announcers succeed in boring the audience to tears, the resulting howls of protest, believe it or not, aren’t coming from anti-baseball zealots.

There’s a thin line to straddle, admittedly. Perhaps O’Brien is in a no-win situation, where he’s unlikely to appease the hardcore, just as he’s unlikely to entertain the soccer skeptic. But the latter is less likely to be won over by the nature of the announcer’s musings than they are the the quality of the competition. O’Brien’s may claim he’s been denounced for his failure to pander to a clique, but why is it, for instance, Vin Scully can call a Dodger game and be equally entertaining and informative for those who follow the team every day and those who rarely watch?

The answer is simple : Scully knows baseball and has finely honed his craft. O’Brien lacks the knowledge and expertise to properly handle his current gig, and rather than accept the criticism, he’d prefer to disparage the few people who are actually enduring his commentary.

6 responses to “ESPN’s O’Brien Vs. The Ants”

  1. wisdomweasel says:

    “soccer enthusiasts”? I can’t decide if that makes us football fans sound like model train collectors or dirty raincoated deviants.

    To paraphrase the terrace mobbing boot boys of my youth, Dave O’Brien, you are shit-ah.

  2. GC says:

    I’m actually far more turned off by his assessment of why he’s facing criticism than the actual quality of his play-by-play. I mean, the latter is rather dire, but not to the point where I’d turn off the game.

    Really, “the people who hate me are a fringe group who love the sport too much” is not the most convincing defense he could mount.

  3. beedlebaum says:

    The idea that foreign soccercasts have “minimalist” announcers is silly, to say the least. It also shows that he probably hasn’t ever seen an international game yet

  4. Locke says:

    I had never watched a soccer game before the world cup and I had no clue who this guy was but I still can’t stand him, and after that whining little rant I dislike him even more. Despite the fact that about the only spanish I can remember from school is “Donde esta la bibleoteca?” I’m finding univision more enjoyable.

  5. JPW says:

    The guy calls the match like a baseball game(which is his background). He is way too dry to be calling a soccer match.

  6. connie m. butler says:

    On July 24, 2006 I listened to Davy O’Brien and Eric Karros butcher the Yankee/Ranger baseball game. Sutcliffe sat quietly as if he was embarrassed as he should have been.
    Someone in top management should review this performance. It was a disgrace.
    They began with a tongue in cheek defense of A Rod and spent the rest of the time cutting him to pieces. Ending with a lame brain comparison of A Rod to Dave Wright of the Mets.
    Thankfully the Braves and Phillies were on Turner South to save the evening for me and thousand other like me.
    These two have let their emotions interfere with their work

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