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ESPN Adds Accent of Success

ESPN is putting all of its resources behind this summer's World Cup from South Africa, and recently those assets improved markedly with the hiring of prominent British soccer broadcaster Martin Tyler, once named Commentator of the Decade in England's Premier League.

The move symbolizes a marked about-face for ESPN, as some executives at the company had hesitated in the past to use a non-American voice as lead broadcaster. But Tyler, speaking via phone from his home in England, says he will be free to call matches in the manner that has made him one of the most recognizable and lauded soccer voices in the world.

“I am not being brought in to be molded for the USA; I will call matches as I always have,” he says. “I hope that works; it will be for ESPN viewers to decide.”

While Tyler will be making his debut on ESPN's air this summer, the broadcaster and company actually were in talks four years ago for a deal that would have had Tyler calling the 2006 World Cup. But ESPN made the ill-fated decision instead to go with an American announcer in the lead spot and used prominent baseball and college basketball voice Dave O'Brien, who was understandably overmatched by the event and vilified by many soccer fans. Tyler says he held no grudge.

“There were no hard feelings because there was no real commitment from ESPN,” Tyler says. “I got a call saying, 'We are going to go down another route,' and that was their right.”

ESPN asked Tyler to call the 2008 European Championships, but he was already committed elsewhere. The two sides finally got on the same page for this summer's month-long event. The public response to Tyler's hiring has predictably been universally positive.

“The reaction has been overwhelming,” he says. “Now I want to do justice to that anticipation. It was quite a protracted deal; there was no real snag, it just took a long time to do. But when I signed the contract in my little office here and took it down to the local [post office] and mailed it off, I was thrilled.”

While Tyler does not plan on adjusting his style, he is very familiar with the makeup of the U.S. sports fan. He has called or reported on several sporting events in the U.S., including the infamous Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

But his fondest memory of that event was not being ready to rush onto the field when Bill Buckner suddenly changed baseball history, but rather meeting one of his own broadcasting icons, Vin Scully. “He said, 'Drink lots of water with your coffee and you'll always be fine.' I remember it vividly, and of course he wouldn't remember it at all,” Tyler laughs. “I was in awe of him.”

Divided loyalties?

One of the more interesting aspects of Tyler's hiring is that he expects to call the highly anticipated match between his native England and the home country of his new employer, the U.S., in what could be the most-watched soccer match ever in this country. “There will be no bias, not intended anyway,” he says. “It's not a problem for me; whether it is a problem for anyone else, I don't know. You can never do a perfect commentary, but there's nothing to stop you from trying.”

And despite his deep knowledge of both teams (Tyler has called several U.S. matches, and many American players now ply their trade in England), he says he doesn't like to make predictions. “I would think it would be quite hard for the bookmakers to pick this one,” he says. “I would think a draw is a good bet. Well then, I've just given a prediction and I just said I don't do that.”

That is as close to a mistake as Martin Tyler usually makes, which is why ESPN's World Cup team has its own world-class addition.