Monday, June 22, 2009

Current Status: Attacking throw, Arsenal Gunners of London

Big news today. Potentially widespread ramifications and something we've all been hearing whispers of for months, if not dreading for years. After all, sports will all be under the same umbrella by 2015, won't it? And by it all I mean down to the game of whiffle ball you're playing in your background, with that oak tree as second base, the neighbor's sidewalk as the warning track and the old man next door's Ford Taurus as third. That heated match, between you and your eight year old nephew, will probably be on ESPN 523. Or maybe I'm quite certain you'll be able to just pull up the live blog an see the updating status on your iPhone. It was bound to happen.

For now, however, we'll have to settle for what we've got and somehow make do. ESPN has acquired Setanta's rights to broadcast the English Premier League.  

The details will surely trickle out in the coming days and weeks. The biggest thing we worry about when it comes to such things is a change in our routine. Please say it ain't so. Please say you, ESPN, wont unravel what has become the structure of my life. I'm having a hard enough time shaking off a severe level of depression with the absence of league football and the onset of a summer with no proper international tournament to pass the time until August. And yeah, the Confederations Cup does not count. This year's tournament is akin to Rocky Balboa's final exhibition fight against Mason Dixon. A bunch of nobodies trotting out and taking their shot against a team that is so far and away superior that it almost tarnishes how well they are actually playing to even face the opposition. It remains to be seen whether or not one of the upstarts (perhaps those plucky Americans on Wednesday?) will actually turn up and make a fight out of this exhibition. But I digress...

In America, when it comes to ESPN, we get announcers with no credentials (see the comments in the above article - Shaka Hislop?). We get terminology that churns our pretentious and stuck-up stomachs ("and that'll be a PK for the Samba Kings from South America's BraZil"). And we get Manchester United. A lot of Manchester United. In fact, we get so much Manchester United that ESPN featured the club on their ticker just the other day when it was announced that Carlos Tevez would not be returning to the club. Now, rightly so and credit where credit is due, they have won the league three years running and have made the last two Champions League finals - winning, of course, in 2008. They deserve the coverage. But at what cost? Watching the coverage from the American sports conglomerate one would think it a fait accompli that United would surely win the league each year ... if they don't, well, my oh my, they must've been cheated. It's their trophy, isn't it? In fact, all trophies really and truly belong to them. Surely there aren't other teams in the league who compete? 

When news of ESPN potentially winning this contract first started reaching our ears several months ago Jim and I had a conversation that focused on the potential changes at hand. Whether it was out of pure absurdity, silliness, jealousy or even fear of the full reach of Jintao's spindly little fingers, we ended up with a rather terrifying and distopian view of our future as football viewers in America who hitch their very sanity to the fact that they count on a 6:30 a.m. match, a 9:00 a.m. match, an 11:30 a.m. match and a 1:30 p.m. replay - every Saturday - with a 7:30 a.m. match and a 10:00 a.m. match - every Sunday. Clock.Work. Much more than our watches are set by that schedule. And rest assured we're not alone. Every one of you reading Match Pricks from these shores is in the same boat. We've got the schedule, the lifestyle and the bags under our eyes to prove it. And you know what? We enjoy getting to watch Aston Villa vs. Fulham (hell, we relish it!). We're happy to check in on Bolton (no, really, we are) and Tottenham (no, I'm not smirking, really, full respect) and a shot of White Heart Lane in full voice. West Ham, Birmingham, Reading, Southampton, Portsmouth, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Charlton, Norwich, Sheffield United, City ... we embrace and enjoy watching all of them through the course of a weekend. It's like family members coming over to dinner, or rather, breakfast (and lunch, sometimes we make it to dinner too ... sometimes).

So imagine our fear when we hear that ESPN - the network that broadcasts every one of Manchester United's European Cup group stage and knockout matches, the network that regularly gives us highlight updates on their Sportscenter shows, the network that runs news of Carlos Tevez simply not re-upping his contract on their ticker - has won the rights to broadcast the league that we turn to like a five year old turns to his tattered old teddy bear. As I say, we toyed with this look into the future a few months ago and we didn't like what we saw. That we never laid out the thoughts in full, beyond an assortment of notes, must've spoken at some primal level to a desperate hope that it wouldn't come true. Well, gird yourselves, folks. The dam is about to burst.

ESPN will be tripping over itself to bring us more news every day in the run-up before the season. It'll be an effort to continue to convert their American audience. We'll get news of United's bid for Karim Benzema. We'll hear all about Ecuadorean and soon-to-be ex-Wigan striker Valencia and how he'll incorporate with United's midfield. Little Tommy Smyth will stop rubbing Sir Alex Jintao's feet long enough to tell us just how deadly Dimitar Berbatov is (Barry Melrose will stop talking about hockey for the few minutes necessary to chime in and compare him to Brett Hull) and how versatile Rooney can be now that he's not watching Ronaldo loping up and down the pitch, Mike & Mike in the Morning will have a couple of United bobbleheads on their desk every morning. We'll get updates on Colleen's ultrasounds straight up until delivery in US Weekly and on Entertainment Tonight (that show is still on, isn't it?)

And don't forget the diving. We'll hear all about how the departure of Ronaldo will be a good thing for United, ushering in a greater level of team play ... one that will allow Sir Alex Jintao to build a new team for the future, for the next five to 10 years, so that he can sit back and retire, knowing fully well that his treasured side will be on auto-pilot. Selling Ronaldo will have been the most brilliant stroke of his long career. After all, no one really and truly liked him anyway, did they? Not that egotistical, pawning, preening and self-promoting poon-hound. Oh rest assured, we'll hear all about that.

And you'll get your hopes up, won't you, for some nice, clear and shiny high-definition games? It's ESPN after all, isn't it? You bet it is, kiddies. E.S.P.N. And hey, they're American. If they won't bring you football in HD, who will? Oh yeah, it'll be sweet. We'll get those HD games alright. Live and direct from Old Trafford where they'll have that pitch lined with HD cameras all set to bring it straight to America from 68 different angles. You'll see those prawn sandwiches in enough detail to tell just how fresh they are. You'll be able to tell how old van der Saar really is, how many minutes Rio was late for his most recent drugs test just from looking deep into his eyes, how muddled Owen Hargreaves' accent is from watching his lips move and just how many shades of purple Sir Alex Jintao's nose is by now. Hell, you'll be able to read the song sheet that kid is clinging to in row YY and see that it's simply the tune to Old McDonald.

But will you get to see your team? A team you once referred to simply as The Arsenal, or Liverpool, even Chelsea, Everton, or West Ham? Well for starters you can get used to hearing about the legendary career of Theeray Hen-ry at the Arsenal Gunners of North London, the heroics of Ferdinand Torres at the Liverpool Reds and the fortunes of other far-flung teams like the Chelsea Lions, the Everton Toffees (a team based in Everton, England of course) and the West Ham Hammers - with their popular number one fan Elijah Wood.

That'll be a trip, won't it? You'll have the TV on mute by the second week of September. If, that is, you can get the signal to come in. See, ESPN will have poured so much money into acquiring the rights and upgrading their equipment to project the most fantastic HD images out of Old Trafford that the rest of our games will come through in a jumpy black & white feed of 80 percent static that'll make everyone feel like a bunch of junior high kids trying to get the Playboy channel to come in at a sleep-over. Look inside yourself, you know it's true. No matter what size television screen your football pub or living room comes equipped with, you'll be squinting at a snowy 13 inch transmission that'll have you swearing Paulo di Canio just scored for Chelsea and that Arsenal actually featured a team of veterans. 

Shortly thereafter, we'll be forced into the streets. Our retinas will be too burned out. Flattened and cross-eyed we'll scramble into the closest public square outside of our favourite football pubs where a giant board will have been erected and our publican, rather than insulting the early morning drunks in jest and tossing napkins in the air after another famous goal, will update the giant tote board from a ladder and with a long reaching stick like a man pulled forward out of 1893, sliding numbers and names across the ledger to keep us up-to-the-every-20-minutes as the news trickles in from such far-flung non-Manchester outposts as London, Liverpool and Birmingham. For those of us too far back to get a decent look at the board and the score updates, we'll rely on his partner who stands at the base of the board equipped with a large cardboard shouting tube, no mega-phone here folks, there's no municipality in the United States crazy enough to allow an electric amplification device that early in the morning (There are decent folk here! By God, they need their sleep to keep society running!). With each update, with each pass of that long reaching stick across the beloved and soon-to-be cherished Big Board (I can only imagine it'll evolve into a shrine, like the unexploded bomb in Beneath the Planet of the Apes), that man will simply bellow out for all to hear ...

"Attacking throw to the Arsenal!"

And a general "hurrah!" will push up from the crowd. My how quickly things can change. At least there'll still be booze.


BroadwayJoe said...

What kind of impact do you think this will have on the popularity of Premier League soccer in the US? I, for one, kind of like the idea of being able to enjoy a game or two on my own television while enjoying my morning cup of joe. With that said, ESPN does not have a history of enlightened coverage of any sport.

Dan said...

I laughed and cried as I read this.

However, it doesn't look like we're going to have our beloved ritual interrupted for the time being.

Apparently Setanta US is a separate entity, and is unaffected. Let's hope it stays this way!

MulderBurns said...

Colin, this is your masterwork. Your manifesto. Well done.

Apparently it's only ESPN UK at this point, but I'm guessing it's just a matter of time. I'm certainly torn, and need to know the parameters of this thing. I love all the games I get at home on Fox Soccer Channel - I wish they had HD, and that they still got the early game on Saturdays and Sundays so I didn't have to wait until the 10:00 Saturday and 11:00 Sunday kickoffs. But we get the English announcer teams, and a good mix of the teams we get to see.

I don't know what ESPN will bring. I like the idea of more games on a channel I actually get, but will this eventually spell doom for Fox Soccer Channel? And which ESPN will these games be on? If we're talking Saturdays and Sundays in the Fall, there's no way they're pre-empting college football and NFL pregame shows. Does this mean ESPN Classic? Changes the equation quite a bit.

The Man Utd issue is very real. They'll be jammed down our throats relentlessly. The coverage of their CL games as compared to Arsenal is ridiculous. And what announcers will we get? The English feeds, I hope? Maybe some Derek Ray? Please do not let John Harkes near my Arsenal. I've had quite enough of him over the past week or so.

I suppose we'll all know in time, but the jist of your blog is the right one - please don't mess with my football weekends. Tell me who's on, what channel, where I can watch it - but don't fuck it up.

Jamie said...

alright? outstanding colin... wonderful negativity. blogger would be proud : )

i say! ESPN have not done this deal to be nice to us... we would all love to see the prem just pop up on ESPN 2 every saturday at 9 or whatever, but that aint gonna happen...

c'mon... they spend so many millions on a contract and give it subscribers that already pay for a channel they (i) dont watch! not on your nelly...

well, i do watch it... but only if there's a 6pm replay of a champions league game - aherm, in which the score of that game will, aherm, scroll at the bottom for the duration. am i right... am i right...?

-Papa Georgio.
Vegas Vacation.

that said, i take colins personal comment yesterday, and think they'll make a subscription/ppv option availble to rake in the sheets... however, that seems to have failed with that ol'santana fingy innit.

on the other hand, like we've all read and said, this could have no effect on us here in the u.s. at all - what's new? nuffink.

Colin said...

Thanks for chiming in everyone.

While I'm primarily concerned with the general aura of how ESPN will tackle its football ... the aftershocks if you will ... my expectation is that the network will set-up a pay channel for programming, much like the Setanta we're used to right now. I'd be shocked if they just start carrying Premier League matches on Saturday mornings for Americans to wake up to. Ol' Mulder Burns makes a great point above - college (American) football is king on ESPN in the fall. That will not get bumped in an effort to sprinkle the lawn and grow football's influence stateside to protect their investment. That investment, I reckon, will come back to them as they establish a pay channel. To be honest, I don't really feel like researching it much further right now to try to uncover more specific details. I'm sure after the haze of speculation dissipates, we'll get deeper specifics. I do also worry about the access to the sheer number of matches we grew accustomed too. Not just Setanta's coverage, which I'm sure will be picked up in kind, but Setanta Extra ... that little gem that gave us Arsenal away to Blackburn when there were already two other matches on. Nothing like the triple-cast at 9:00 a.m.

All in all, we'll see. I'm really gonna start worrying when I see Michael Eisner in a United Cap, or even Mickey Mouse all kitted out in his shiny new United gear. Then we'll really have issues.

Colin said...

Also, gotta give props to fellow Gooner Jamie for his injection of one of the true characters we used to have the privilege of watching matches with, ol' Charlie. Passing through our small corner of the footballing world for a brief time, this fellow had a face, accent and manner about him that exuded life experience. And a way of mangling facts and foreign names that is about the most fun thing to recount as I can think of.

casey said...

You've all brought up great points ie american announcers, conflicting with american football and the like, but let us not forget I'm on Setanta Sports. What will happen to The Special One?