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ESPN’S Olympic Tryout Is Golden

The conventional wisdom within the television sports industry has long been that mighty ESPN will swoop in and money- whip the Olympics away from incumbent NBC Sports with an outlandish bid along the lines of the budget-mauling, $1.1 billion-per-year price it paid for Monday Night Football.

The Comcast-NBC Universal merger, however, has made that less of a sure bet. The pending transaction, not to mention Comcast’s interest in building up properties like its Versus sports network, has many thinking that the conjoined corporation may be more of a formidable bidder than a solo NBCU outfit would have been.

Then ESPN’s losing out on the NCAA March Madness package that many expected it would win prompted another round of thinking: that Disney will use that cash to pad its Olympic bid after all.

If that’s the case, ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup from South Africa has served as a de facto tryout to handle a modern Olympics. And if Disney indeed wants to send this month of coverage—along with a very fat check—as its application to the International Olympic Committee, it would give the company a great chance to land the property. ESPN has shown it is more than up to the Olympic task. Bottom line: Jed Drake, the network’s executive producer of events, and the company deserve a gold medal for their coverage.

That Disney has the breadth to cover the Olympics is obvious, given ABC and all the ESPN networks, in addition to its digital and mobile plays. And it also could use cable nets like ABC Family if need be. But its noticeable overall commitment to the World Cup has shown how it would handle an Olympics in two vital ways.

The first is financial. In addition to the rights fee, ESPN has spent a ton on doing the World Cup the right way. The $50,000-perperson price tag in T&E alone didn’t keep ESPN from sending a small army, including top talent like Mike Tirico and Bob Ley.

The second sign is the overall tone of the coverage. Absent has been the “ESPN-ification” that so many soccer fans were fearing. The tone has been one of reverence toward the magnitude of the event, both in games and ancillary programming.

The silly tone of shriek-fest Around the Horn and the bombastic nature of hosts like Jim Rome have been happily absent. Maddening personnel moves like Chris Berman on golf and the 2006 Dave O’Brien World Cup debacle are nonexistent. ESPN is treating the biggest sporting event in the world as it should be treated, and it’s a sign of how the network would handle the Olympics. Even its subtle cross-promotion of other ESPN events worked, such as using Andy Roddick and Serena Williams talking about the U.S. getting screwed by that ref against Slovenia as its way of sneaking in Wimbledon promos.

ESPN’s in-game commentary has been fantastic: The matches, as they should be, are the star of the show. That was expected with the quality of talent ESPN tapped, like Martin Tyler and Derek Rae. Longtime English soccer broadcaster Ian Darke has been the only playby- play man to insert himself too much into his calls, but nowhere near the degree that it could negatively affect the experience.

And yet for me, the most impressive aspect of the entire World Cup for ESPN remains the quality of its studio shows. I expected Ley to shine as he has, but the ever-solid Tirico has been even better than expected, looking like he’s been talking international soccer for years. And Chris Fowler has been surprisingly strong as well. On the analyst side, ESPN (and American fans) have learned that the biggest names don’t always make the best talent, as a guy you’ve never heard of named Roberto Martinez has proved to be far and away the best studio analyst.

Yes, there have been plenty of missteps and technical glitches, but that’s to be expected when you are doing a month-long event of such massive proportions. And as the rights holder to Major League Soccer games, ESPN could definitely be a better partner to the domestic league, as its promotion of the league has been sparse. A subtle example: ESPN should have highlighted the MLS ties of former coach Ruud Gullit and former MLS player Shaun Bartlett, both of whom are in-studio analysts.

But overall, if you are an Olympics fan—either a hard-core fan of one sport or a more casual observer of the spectacle as a whole—the World Cup has given you a window of what an ESPN Olympics would look like. And while NBC’s Olympics coverage is a standardbearer for all of sports on television, I am now entirely comfortable that if ESPN steps up and wins the bid, viewers will defi nitely not be the losers.

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