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Ian Darke discusses his World Cup; ESPN takes on the CFL

Commentator Ian Darke expects the U.S. Men's National Team to have a Photo:

Commentator Ian Darke expects the U.S. Men's National Team to have a "big, big performance" against Belgium on Tuesday. A spot in the quarterfinals is on the line.

ESPN commentator Ian Darke has called thousands of soccer matches during his broadcast career, but he has never experienced a journey to a stadium like the one he did last week for Germany’s 1-0 win over the United States in Recife, Brazil.

Staying in a hotel about 25 miles from Arena Pernambuco, Darke, analyst Taylor Twellman, producer Matt Leach, associate producer Doug Whitehorn and audio producer Luke Williams were scheduled to be picked up by a van at 8:15 a.m local time on game day when they received a call from their driver roughly 30 minutes later. The news was not good: The city was basically underwater after nine hours of torrential rain had fallen in Recife and the 14-person passenger van called "the Spinner" was stuck in the flood miles away.

The group contemplated hitching a ride to the Arena Pernambuco on the U.S. team charter bus, but soon learned they would be unable to do so because of FIFA security. Quickly, they hustled to find another vehicle that could drive them through the flooded Recife streets to meet their original driver, a Brazilian military policeman who was doing freelance work for ESPN. But that car nearly stalled on multiple occasions as the group found themselves stuck on side streets with water rushing halfway up the car door. Darke said he was convinced the group would not make it the stadium for kickoff. Finally, after many anxious, waterlogged moments, they eventually met up with their original driver and upon receiving his ESPN cargo, the driver called up some of his fellow military officers to provide a police escort to Arena Pernambuco.

“It was one crazy drive,” Darke said. “It took three hours to get there and that was with police sirens for the last bit.”

The ride to Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador on Tuesday morning for the United States-Belgium Round of 16 match should go much smoother. How will Darke prepare? ​He will call the game (ESPN, 4:00 p.m. ET) again with Twellman, and speaking by phone from Rio on Sunday night after he had already traveled some 10,000 miles in Brazil, Darke said he’d prepare the same way he has for every game.

“I’ll be thinking through the history of the fixture and the various scenarios that may unfold,” Darke said. “The U.S. is not the favorite, but I think they have a serious outside chance of getting the win here. Belgium has won the last four times they’ve played USA. They are a good side. Even if the USA goes out in this game, I think they can say they have had a good World Cup. But I like [U.S. head coach Jürgen] Klinsmann's attitude. He is not going to let them be satisfied with what they have done so far.”

Darke said he is familiar with the heavy viewership the U.S. games are getting back in the States and has been reading the English papers online, that have described the tournament as a “lift off” for soccer in the U.S. Darke said he has been impressed by how many U.S. fans are in Brazil and every plane he’s been on has been full of Americans.

“There are more Americans than Brazilians on some of these flights,” Darke said. 

Darke said the best the atmosphere of all the games he has called so far was Chile-Spain on June 17 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio.

“The Chile fans just turned that into a bear pit atmosphere,” Darke said. “The noise was incredible and that was the day the fans stormed the media center. Plus, it was the end of the Spain era unfolding before your eyes.”

The best moment?

The John Brooks header [against Ghana] was really fantasy, comic type of stuff,” Darke said.

I asked Darke what he thought a win over Belgium would mean for the U.S. on a global soccer scale.

“[The U.S.] did get to the quarterfinals in 2002, but it was nothing like the news that it is right now,” Darke said. “I don’t know how to describe it. On the Richter scale it would be I suppose an eight. Then they would probably play Argentina and Lionel Messi and you can only imagine how the thing might snowball from there should they get this win. I am expecting them to give a big, big performance for this Belgium game. Whether that will be good enough, we will find out.”

The Noise Report

SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. Univision said it is averaging 2.9 million total viewers through the first 50 games of the World Cup.

1a. The highest-rated cities for Univision’s coverage of the World Cup through its first 50 games: 1. Miami; 2. Los Angeles; 3. Houston; 4. Dallas; 5. New York; 6. Phoenix; 7. Chicago; 8. San Francisco; 9. Sacramento.

1b. Univision's coverage of the Mexico-Netherlands match drew 10.4 million viewers, the most-watched soccer match in the network's history, as well as the most-watched program ever for a U.S.-based Spanish language broadcast network. The match topped the previous record of 9.4 million viewers who watched Argentina defeat Mexico in the 2010 World Cup Round of 16. It also topped the 2007 final episode of the telenovela “Destilando Amor" which attracted nearly 9 million viewers. With 8.8 million viewers watching the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, soccer now ranks as three of the top four most-watched programs for any U.S.-based Spanish-language broadcast network. ESPN drew 6.571 million for the match.

1c. Univision said during the time of the match (12:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m. ET on Sunday) Univision was the highest rated broadcast station among total viewers, adults 18-49 and adults 18-34 in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Phoenix and Sacramento. The network said it had more than twice the audience of ESPN among total viewers for this match in Los Angeles, Miami and Houston, and the Univision station in Dallas had more than three times ESPN’s audience among total viewers.

1d. ESPN is averaging 3.788 million through 52 World Cup matches, up 32 percent in viewership from 2010. The top 10 markets to date for the World Cup coverage on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC: 1. Washington, D.C.; 2. New York; 3. San Francisco; 4. Los Angeles; T5. Orlando and San Diego; T7. Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Hartford/New Haven. T9. West Palm Beach and Richmond.

2. ESPN has a long relationship with the Canadian Football League, having previously aired league games from 1980-84, 1986-89, 1994-97 (featuring Gus Johnson and Mike Mayock) and a smattering of games last year. Additionally, the CFL has had a ton of play on ESPN3 since 2008, including 54 games in 2013.

“Last year we were pleasantly surprised how the games did from an audience perspective on linear TV when we aired them,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming acquisitions. “We thought why not go for the whole megillah?”

Last week the network announced it had reacquired the U.S. television rights to the CFL, beginning with the 2014 season. The deal is for five years, with some options on both sides for a shorter deal. Last year, NBC Sports Network aired 14 regular-season games, the Eastern and Western Final, and the Grey Cup championship game (on NBCSN). Magnus said the bidding was not a competitive situation with any other network.

The particulars: ESPN will air 17 games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN News including the Grey Cup. There will be an additional 69 games available digitally on ESPN3. ESPN will use Canada's TSN's commentators (and production teams) for the pregame and game coverage, but ESPN will produce the halftime. Magnus said the six games that aired on ESPN last year did a 0.2 rating. (For comparison. a high school slam dunk and three-point contest that aired on CBS on June 22 at 2:00 p.m. ET drew a 0.4 rating.)

“We thought that was a respectful rating given that the games just popped up and were on sort of randomly," Magnus said. "Now we are hoping with a little more consistency, and the promotional connection between the league and ESPN in a more traditionally structured deal gives us a chance to hopefully get some upside. It is part of our love affair with the sport of football and this fits in well.”

One interesting note: Magnus said that ESPN is seriously considering a full-blown production of the Grey Cup using ESPN talent onsite.

“We are absolutely looking into it," Magnus said. "I can’t tell you where it will end up, but we would very much like to do that.”

3. For those who missed it: My Monday media column focused on CBS’ hiring of former NFL referee Mike Carey as a rules analyst and a review of ESPN’s NBA draft coverage.

3a. I talked to Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira as part of the Carey reporting and he brought up something interesting that would really aid the World Cup broadcasts – a rules analyst for soccer.

“As we go further on, you see sports that don’t have a role like this and you see more frustrated fans,” Pereira said. “For example, I am watching the World Cup and I don’t know what happened or what the call is or any explanation. And when you are relatively new to the sport, that is frustrating.”

This is something Fox Sports should seriously consider as they start planning for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2018 World Cup. (Update: As some of you noted, including Fox Sports PR staffers, Fox has used former FIFA match coordinator Dr. Joe Machnik on Gold Cup, Champions League, and FA Cup coverage. I should have included initially but the point still stands -- it would be added value for World Cup viewers when Fox takes over the coverage.)

3b. Pereira said he will be part of Fox Sports 1’s college football coverage every Saturday along with the NFL games on Sunday.

“Beyond that I am really not sure,” Pereira said. “I would be interested in doing a recap show which maybe looks at the biggest calls each week or potential discipline like things. But this job is something I would like to do for as long as I have the energy and get the fun out of it like I do now. It is an interesting word – retirement. I retired from the NFL, but I transitioned into Fox. Retirement for me is simple: Doing what you like to do and not having to do what you don’t like to do. What I do at Fox is exactly what I like to do.”

4. Fox Sports 1 announced last week it had hired Tim Brando to call college football and college basketball on Fox and Fox Sports 1. Good move.

4a. Another good move: ESPN has re-signed Dari Nowkhah to a multi-year deal. He'll host the SEC Network's weeknight news and information show, SEC Now.

5. Odds and ends: TBS’s initial “MLB on TBS” game of the week begins on July 6 and continues through the final Sunday of the season. The network will air 13 regular season games with broader co-exist rights in the local markets. That means, for example, the Yankees-Twins game on July 6 will co-exist with local coverage in Minneapolis. The TBS announcers for the Sunday package are Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and Cal Ripken.

5a. Fox Sports 1 has a big week of UFC programming coming up that’s it’s dubbed UFC “Red, White & Fight Week.” The network will air more than 16 hours of UFC programming from Wednesday to Sunday including The Ultimate Fighter Season 19 finale on July 6. Fox said UFC bantamweight contender Miesha Tate will make her TV analyst debut on UFC 175 next week.

5b. The World Series of Fighting hits NBC on July 5 at 4 p.m. ET. Kenny Rice is on the call, with analysts Bas Rutten and Joey Varner.

5c. NBA TV will televise more than 60 Summer League games live from the respective game sites, beginning July 5.

5d. Fox Sports 1 will air a one-hour show on the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games Monday at 7 pm ET. The special is a co-production of Fox and the WWE and hosted by Mike Hill and Molly McGrath.

5e. The NBC Sports Group will air all 21 stages of the Tour De France on either NBC or NBCSN. Daily live coverage of the Tour de France begins July 5, at 6 a.m. ET on NBCSN with Stage 1, and continues each night with a Tour Primetime show. The coverage ends with the final stage Sunday, July 27, at 9 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

5f. Fox Sports 1 continues its string of hiring smart reporters (Bruce Feldman, Stewart Mandel) for some TV work. The latest is Boston Globe writer Amalie Benjamin, who interviewed Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes here for her network debut.

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