Twenty years ago this summer, the lead announcers for ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup in the United States were Roger Twibell and Seamus Malin.
For anyone tuning in then, or old enough to remember, those were heady days for American soccer. Finally, the sport was coming out of some very dark shadows and into the sunlight of international sporting prominence.
This was all true, and for an American caught up in the excitement over the World Cup those remain very special memories for me. (The other day I was listening to the official USA ‘94 CD that includes Hall and Oates, Tina Turner and Carlos Santana. But that’s a post for another time.)
But compared to what a typical American television soccer viewer can see today, on an almost daily basis, and the quality of the production involved, 1994 might seem like the dark ages.
The World Cup that begins next week in Brazil will mark the end of ESPN’s coverage of that event, as Fox is set to take over starting next year with the Women’s World Cup. The timing is dastardly, given how ESPN has raised the presentation of international soccer in the United States to levels envied in more soccer-saturated nations like Great Britain.
ESPN’s evolution in many ways has matched the growth in the availability, and the increasing quality, of soccer programming on American television.
The influence of USA ‘94 didn’t immediately take hold on television; MLS began in 1996 with a limited package, and only the rare English Premier League game was shown. Fox Sports Net began offering EPL weekly highlights, hosted by Lionel Bienvenu, in the late 1990s, followed by several full games a week on the new Fox Soccer Channel.
This was an American soccer fan’s wildest dream, but that period triggered so much more, including the first soccer-related blogs. The Web became a place for soccer fans in America to vent their frustrations at the lack of coverage, and to create their own. Message boards were created, as was the first full-fledged soccer television listing site, soccerTV.com.
As the 2000s arrived, Fox Soccer Channel flourished, showing games from Scotland, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, Latin America, the American lower divisions and the U.S. Open Cup, as well as the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup and non-U.S. World Cup qualifying. Univision and Telemundo also were becoming viewing destinations for non-Spanish speakers.
And yet, MLS stepped in