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.