ESPN2 hitting its MLS stride
Less than a month into the regular seasons, MLS teams are far from the finished product as coaches juggle players and alter tactics to find the right formula.
Last year, a lot of juggling took place with the broadcast teams selected by ESPN2 for its MLS telecasts. Some games featured on-site hosts, some didn't, several sideline reporters were used and from the third week of the season, the cable system used a three-man crew in the broadcast booth.
There won't be as much variety this year, though more games -- 16 as opposed to nine last year -- will feature an additional 30 minutes of non-game programming, and sideline reporters will be used in some games.
Pending possible changes, the regular two-man team in the booth will be veteran soccer broadcaster JP Dellacamera and former U.S. international and former Red Bull assistant coach John Harkes, who will be on the air Thursday when FC Dallas takes on New England (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Dellacamera has worked MLS Cups and All-Star Games in the past, but never has been the lead announcer for league games. To land the ESPN2 position, he left his post as play-by-play man for Red Bulls telecasts on MSG. He and Harkes worked together at the 2006 World Cup and he believes that experience and chemistry should come across in the telecasts.
"When you work with someone during a World Cup, you really get to know them because you are literally living with them for six weeks in a foreign country," says Dellacamera. "You're traveling together, you're eating together, you're preparing and doing notes together.
"I thought he did an outstanding job in '06 and brought a lot to the table. His work ethic is strong and he has a great knowledge of the game, obviously, as an ex-player and a Hall of Famer."
ESPN2 hired Harkes in January after executives decided to terminate Eric Wynalda, whose contract had another three years left. Wynalda declined to comment on his dismissal and the hiring of Harkes, a former teammate on the U.S. national team. Red Bull let Harkes go in December after he worked one season as an assistant coach.
His TV background includes a stint as studio analyst on the cancelled Fox Soccer International highlights show MLS Wrap, as well as analyst/color commentator on college games for ESPN2, and D.C. United regional broadcasts.
"I think we make a good team," says Harkes. "He knows the game, obviously, and we both know the league and the players well enough to give people information and insights so they enjoy the games more."
ESPN2 kicked off its '08 MLS coverage with a doubleheader April 3 and after taking a week off to telecast the NCAA Division I men's hockey tournament (a.k.a. the "Frozen Four"), began regular Thursday night telecasts on April 17. Though the network has telecast MLS games since the league started up in '96, this is just the second season since it signed a deal by which it controls production and pays approximately $8 million annually in broadcast rights.
In addition to regular Champions League telecasts and selected matches of the U.S. national team, ESPN/ABC will show all 32 games of the European Championship in June, and has already begun promoting that coverage.
"The MLS product is getting better because of a few factors; they're signing better international players; they're getting better American players; and they're getting new stadiums," says Dellacamera. "All of that is helping the atmosphere at the games.
"With all the soccer inventory [ESPN has], they're in the process of putting together the best thing they can for all of the different tournaments and packages. Right now they have a good handle on the concept of what needs to be done."
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