The question is clearly loaded. Ian Darke is on the phone from Surrey, England, about a goal kick from the Chelsea Football training grounds, and an American reporter is inquiring about the broadcaster's interest in calling future World Cups after ESPN relinquishes the package to Fox Sports following this year's tournament in Brazil. It is not a question he expected prior to a quiet Sunday dinner in March. But over the last four years, Darke has become one of the most popular sports broadcasters in the United States, and American soccer fans no doubt would want him to continue calling the world's most popular sporting event. Darke is currently contracted with ESPN through the 2016 European Championships (which ESPN will air). So, how much consideration would Darke give to working for Fox after his ESPN contract expires?
"That's too difficult and anything I say would be considered disloyal to ESPN," Darke said, laughing. "I don't even know that ESPN would offer me another deal beyond 2016. When we get to the end of the European Championships at the end of 2016, I am like every other commentator without a contract."
If Fox Sports management has done its due diligence, they already know about Darke's contractual status. The network has committed to Gus Johnson as its primary voice for the 2018 World Cup, a decision that has caused consternation among some soccer fans. Fox is not going to budge with Johnson, so it's vital they provide as much quality around an unproven international soccer game-caller. Hiring Darke for the 2018 World Cup (and 2019 Women's World Cup) would be a brilliant move if the objective is to gain the trust of hardcore soccer viewers.
To be clear, this is my suggestion. Darke did not tout himself during our chat for future work. He has a long and loyal connection to ESPN, which started with his hire by the network for the World Cup in 1994. His work at the 2010 World Cup -- he was assigned to most of the U.S. national team games, including its dramatic win over Algeria -- exposed his work to a huge audience. He has emerged as arguably ESPN's best game-caller not named Dan Shulman.
"It has been career-changing for me," Darke said of working in America. "I find it quite touching, really, and it has made me have a soft spot for the USA, including the soccer team. I find myself wanting them to do well, genuinely. And I am really interested in the growth of the game in the United States."
You will hear plenty of Darke during June and July's World Cup. He has been assigned to all U.S. matches, the opening game between host Brazil and Croatia, the final of the tournament and England's national team when it does not conflict with other assignments. He'll also have additional assignments during the Round of 16 and quarterfinals and semifinals. Some of the game assignments in Brazil will be dictated by travel given geography of the country.
"I'm never one to sit around and cherry pick games because you don't know what the great games will be," Darke said. "Who would have said U.S.-Algeria would turn into the story it turned into four years ago? I'm kind of happy to go where the music takes you."
Next week Darke will call the U.S-Mexico friendly (ESPN, April 2) in Glendale, Ariz. He also covers the English Premier League for BT Sport, so Darke has a full plate that includes the Premier League, Europa League and FA Cup final. As great as NBC's presentation of the Premier League has been, his is the one voice you wish they had on a weekly basis.
"It is a pity in a way that we [ESPN] did not retain the rights to the Premier League, but that is just the way the cookie crumbles when you are working in our line of work," Darke said. "You can only do as much as your TV company has the rights for."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week
1. I conducted an email interview with CBS Sports broadcaster Andrew Catalon on Saturday following his first NCAA tournament assignment for CBS and Turner Sports. Here's the Q&A.
SI.com: I'm emailing you this 24 hours after you used on-air what many would consider a derogatory term against Polish people while describing the defense Oklahoma State was using against Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski. How do you explain what happened?
Catalon: First and foremost, I'm deeply sorry. The honest truth is that I had no idea it's considered a derogatory term. I'm ashamed and embarrassed to admit that, but in no way was I aware that I was making an insensitive or off-color remark. That's not who I am.
SI.com: You apologized to Przemek Karnowski afterward. How did you go about doing that?
Catalon: It was very important to me that I apologized to him in-person. I immediately issued an apology on-air, but I wanted to meet with him face-to-face and apologize. I went into the Gonzaga locker room right after the game and he was very gracious in accepting my apology, as was Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, who offered his support.
SI.com: How concerned are you about this incident staying with you heading forward?
Catalon: I made an honest mistake, and I feel terrible about it. I hope that this does not define me and people will see me for the person and broadcaster that I have always been.
SI.com: What is your response to those viewers who believe you should be suspended or pulled from the tournament?
Catalon: I hope they understand that I made a mistake and I sincerely apologize for my poor choice of words and insensitive remark. I'm not a mean-spirited person. I'm deeply sorry.
SI.com: How much pressure did you feel about this basketball assignment, your first in the NCAA tournament as a game announcer?
Catalon: Truthfully, I did not feel pressure. I did have concerns about how I would prepare for eight teams in such a short amount of time and how my voice would hold up calling four straight games. But CBS put me in some great positions the last few weeks to prepare me for the NCAA tournament; I called eight games from March 1-15.
SI.com: What was the best piece of advice you received specific to this assignment, and from whom?
Catalon: I spoke with many of the play-by-play announcers about how to tackle the challenge of preparing for this assignment. They all had great insights, including Ian Eagle. He told me that it's a different type of prep than a normal game. You have to cover the basics first, and then layer information and nuggets on top of it. It helped me prioritize the things that were important for my charts that I knew I needed to have for each game.
SI.com: How competitive is landing a play-by-play job (in any sport) at a national level?
Catalon: Very competitive. I was in local television for over a decade before being fortunate enough to have some wonderful, regular opportunities at CBS. I'm so incredibly thankful to them for all of their support.
SI.com: How did this assignment differ from previous ones and why?
Catalon: I had to pace myself on Friday. My style is to lay out, let it breathe, but really bring energy and passion in the big moments. However, I knew that I had to watch how much energy I used early because I didn't want to lose my voice for the fourth game. That all went out the window after the incredible finish between Stephen F. Austin and VCU, but I still had enough left for the fourth and final game of the night.
1a. I asked CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus what the thinking was by CBS Sports and Turner Sports management not to discipline Catalon for his comment. "He made a mistake," McManus said. "He realized he made a mistake. He immediately apologized on air. As soon the game was over, he went and sought out the player and apologized to him and the coach. Everyone involved, as far as the principles in the occurrence, including the player and the guy who made the mistake, agreed it was a mistake and agreed to move on. And so did we. We moved on and put it behind us."
2. Networks are generally a conservative bunch when it comes to changing championship game broadcasters but CBS/Turner made a major talent move prior to the tournament with its switch of Clark Kellogg to the studio and Greg Anthony to the Final Four booth alongside Jim Nantz and Steve Kerr. The move has proved valuable for viewers. Kellogg is steeped in the day-to-day storylines of college basketball and he's provided better balance alongside Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, who are best at evaluating the game they are watching as opposed to scouting teams. "I think the move we made putting Clark in the studio and Greg out in the field has worked out as well as we hoped it would," McManus said. "The chemistry in the studio has been terrific."
Does this mean the move will be permanent? CBS and Turner executives would not commit to anything but it seems a near-lock for next year that Kellogg will be back on the main studio set. "Clark has been great in the studio, but Sean and I, like we have always done, will sit down and assess and make sure we are making the right decision," said Turner Broadcasting president David Levy. I don't want to make predictions going forward but the studio is gelling in New York and Atlanta."
2a. Kudos to Kellogg, who made the call on Mercer on March 11.
2b. Living up to its nickname, viewers have gone mad for the tournament, at least through the opening rounds. Through Sunday afternoon, CBS and Turner had averaged 9.2 million viewers for the tournament, up four percent through the same period last year (8.85 million viewers). The network said the tourney had delivered its highest viewership in 21 years (since 1991, when the tournament expanded to four telecast windows for the entire day). McManus said he thought CBS/Turner could keep the ratings momentum if the games remained close. (The network has benefitted from six overtime games.) Levy said the digital side has also helped drive interest via online and mobile. "I'm less concerned about big names moving on then I used to be because the excitement and fervor for the tournament seems to get bigger every single year," McManus said.
2c. Last Saturday's game averaged 10 million viewers, the most-viewed first Saturday of the NCAA Tournament in 21 years (since 1993). The first primetime telecast (5:15 p.m. ET) window averaged 13.8 million viewers, the highest viewership for this game window in 23 years (since 1991). The window is up 27 percent over an average of 10.9 million viewers last year.
2d. CBS/Turner always adds studio analysts during the tournament from the pool of coaches who have been eliminated. McManus said the production will decide on Monday and Tuesday about adding coaches. "There are some big-name coaches available," McManus said, no doubt thinking of Bill Self of Kansas, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Shaka Smart of VCU.
2e. Charles Barkley, Part I: After Kellogg said he went to THE Ohio State University, Barkley responded, "THE No More In The Tournament, you mean."
2f. Charles Barkley, Part II: Asked by host Greg Gumbel who he was picking between Kentucky and Wichita State, Barkley said, "I'm going with Greg Gumbel -- the old guys." He then picked Wichita State.
2g. The truTV airing of Iowa-Tennessee was the most-viewed NCAA First Four telecast ever (since 2011) with 2.2 million total viewers.
2h. Fox Sports 1 drew 702,000 viewers for the Big East Championship Game, the most-watched college basketball game on the network since launch. The Pac-12 men's basketball tournament final drew 680,000 viewers, the second-most watched college basketball game in Fox Sports 1 history.
3. In the world of talent producers, an unsung group who book guests for television and radio programs, the President of the United States is considered the pinnacle of booking. That is why ESPN Radio talent producer Josh Drew received plenty of in-house praise last week when he procured Barack Obama for Colin Cowherd's ESPN Radio show.
How did the interview happen? Drew said the suggestion initially came from ESPN Audio vice president of network content Dave Roberts, but the talent producer initially had no idea how to contact the White House. "I started with a contact that I had in Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's office," Drew said. "They turned me on to a contact in the White House and that contact put me in touch with the President's people. My original goal was to book him for Super Bowl Week with Mike and Mike. That came and went but every time my phone rang and the caller-ID said "Unknown," I knew it was the White House. I finally got the call that this was going to happen, but they didn't know when and they told me to be ready anytime. I guess the one guest you can be as flexible as needed for is the President. Last week, we got the call and 36 hours later, the President was on with Colin."
What kind of restrictions did the White House put on questions or time? "We were told the interview would be no more than seven minutes," Drew said. "I think we ended up going about nine minutes ... oops! We also were told to not ask about politics, which was fine considering we wanted to know more about why he picked Michigan State to win the tournament rather than his thoughts on Russia."
Drew, who produced a radio morning show in Boston at MIX 104.1 FM prior to working at ESPN, said he had never worked in sports prior to his current job but has already landed Obama and Warren Buffett among others for the network. What person is his current ultimate guest?
"I don't always view a giant name as a huge guest," Drew said. "Sometimes getting a lesser name on the air in the middle of a big story can be viewed as huge success. For instance, Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel on any given day is an average guest, but having him on Mike and Mike the morning after his former player Michael Sam announced he was gay was huge for us. With that being said, Michael Jordan would be a guy I would love to get on the network. He is tough because he doesn't have any reason to want to come on. I've emailed his personal assistant numerous times and every time the answer has been the same. No. One of these days that will change."
4. The excellent Kevin Calabro, who has worked for ESPN Radio since 2000, recently signed a multi-year extension to stay as the lead play-by-play voice of the NBA for the network. Calabro will call regular-season, All-Star and playoff games for ESPN Radio and work with lead NBA analyst Jon Barry as well as PJ Carlesimo and Stan Van Gundy. Calabro said last week from his home in Seattle that he'll also have the opportunity to branch out into college basketball.
As ESPN Radio's lead NBA voice, Calabro follows one of the great soundtracks in the sport. For years, the team of Jim Durham and Jack Ramsay entertained and educated ESPN Radio viewers on professional basketball. How did Calabro approach replacing an iconic voice? Calabro said it helped working with the original Sonics play-by-play announcer Bob Blackburn -- a signature voice in that town --- and then replacing Blackburn. "Having worked with Jack Ramsay last year, I got a real sense of the tradition and the excellence with which they performed," Calabro said. "I think we can reach that level, and while I don't feel like a Hall of Fame broadcaster, if I can continue to perform and do this for a number of years, we might reach that level. But I have a different style than J.D. (Jim Durham) and people will have to get accustomed to that."
Calabro said he has told those at ESPN (as well as NBA officials) that should Seattle return as an NBA franchise, he is interested in serving in dual roles as a national play-by-play voice on ESPN Radio as well as doing Seattle games locally. Calabro was the voice of the Sonics for more than 20 seasons before the franchise moved to Oklahoma City. "But it's a hypothetical question, and at this point it really isn't beneficial to me or the parties I am involved with now to pursue the what if's," Calabro said. "I will say this: The league would certainly benefit from being back in Seattle."
Calabro is not the only member of his family with gifted pipes. His brother, David, has been the lead sports anchor for the NBC-affiliate station WTHR in Indianapolis for the past two decades, as well as the public address announcer at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another brother, Ron, an educator in Indiana, is the public address announcer for the Jeffersonvillle (Ind.) High School boys basketball team.
5. Along with Darke, ESPN named its World Cup match commentator crew last week. They include Jon Champion, Adrian Healey, Daniel Mann, Fernando Palomo and Derek Rae.
6. Fox Sports 1 announced that the New York-based Mike Francesa radio show will air on Fox Sports 1 (1:00-4:00 p.m. ET) and Fox Sports 2 (4:00-6:30 p.m. ET) beginning Monday. The show will also be streamed live via Fox Sports Go. As an East Coast play, Francesa will draw audience and likely will top the non-live programming currently airing in that spot. But it will be interesting to see how many viewers in Boise and Dallas (and parts in between) will care about a very heavy New York-centric sports-talk show over the long haul.
6a. Fox Sports 1 is retooling its afternoon lineup. First, Fox Football Daily and Fox Soccer Daily have been removed from the schedule. Come April 7, America's Pregame, hosted by Mike Hill, will air daily from 6 to 7 p.m. In a press release, Fox Sports 1 said America's Pregame will "answer the questions sports fans have about the most compelling stories, games and events from across the country."
7. Sports pieces of note:
• ESPN The Magazine's Chris Jones profiled a baseball coach who finally made the majors after 36 years in the minors.
• SI's Alex Wolff and Sean Gregory on the game that saved March Madness.
• SB Nation's Steven Godfrey discussed working with celebrities in professional wrestling.
• Scott Cacciola of the New York Times details the full-court press for Phil Jackson.
• Marc Tracy of The New Republic profiled ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.
• John Mark Beilue of The Amarillo Globe-News writes about a coach who won a high school basketball championship the same week his wife died.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Brilliant work by the Boston Globe's Eric Moskowitz on how leniency was the rule for Jared Remy in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.
• Jillian C. York asked the question: What are the ethics of publishing a tweet without permission?
• AP sports writer Will Graves on battling cancer.
• The Lost Art of The Angry Unsent Letter.
• The Boston Globe's Big Picture has a heartbreaking photo gallery of those personally affected by Malaysia Airlines MH370.
8. Last week Fox Sports Live aired a dedicated segment of its nightly news and highlight program from the LVH Superbook in Las Vegas, a bold, outside-the-box idea from coordinating producer Yaron Deskalo. Clearly, the conceit for the remote was to draw the interests of those who gamble on the NCAA tournament; the estimates on wagers run between $2.5 billion and $12 billion worldwide.
Appealing to gambling interests offers a potential path to the coveted male 18-45 television demo, though it's a delicate dance with rights holders (which Fox is not when it comes to the NCAA tournament). If nothing else, Fox Sports attempted something different in an attempt to convince even a small fraction of ESPN's audience to switch from SportsCenter to sample the goods.
The segments from Las Vegas were sharply produced -- credit to producers Royce Dickerson, Josh Parcell and assistant Ryan Brumley -- and the on-screen graphics popped for viewers. I could critique the on-air talent but talent has little impact on ratings for a one-off remote play unless Fox committed to A-list celebrities who they could build a marketing campaign around.
People already know my take on most Fox Sports Live talent at this point, anyway; I think Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole are terrific, Gabe Kapler should be the example for current and future FSL panelists; the show should hire a college football reporter with journalistic bona fides; FSL should invest in news and not some impossible to grasp concept as "fun"; and finally, FSL should be wary of the digital seduction of trolling Southern sports fan bases.
While the Vegas attempt was noteworthy and showed ingenuity, the show was crushed by live tournament games and ESPN's armada of college basketball evaluators. Last week SportsCenter aired on Tuesday and Thursday (with late NBA games on Monday and Wednesday) and averaged 531,000 viewers. Fox Sports Live's Monday to Thursday averaged 33,000 viewers. Here's hoping FSL keeps trying. The broadcasting business is better off if they succeed.
9. The market for fired NFL executives has never been hotter -- at least in broadcasting. Last week ESPN hired Mark Dominik, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the past five seasons (2009-13) to serve as a front office insider. He will appear on NFL Insiders (M-F, 3:30 p.m. ET) and contribute to NFL Live, SportsCenter, ESPN Radio and ESPN Insider on ESPN.com. Dominik is expected to make his debut on Thursday.
9a. Look for former NFL and Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy to be hired as a college football analyst if he opts to work in broadcasting. ESPN was very high on McElroy's previous work for the network.
9b. Jason McIntyre of Big Lead Sports reported that NFL analyst Brian Billick has left Fox Sports.
10. The @USOlympic Twitter account gained 107,028 new followers between the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics. During the London 2012 Games, @USOlympic grew by 50,819.
10a. The top-searched Olympians on TeamUSA.org during the Olympics were figure skater Gracie Gold, halfpipe snowboarding gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington and two-time champion in halfpipe snowboarding Shaun White.
10b. ESPN will air the entire 2014 NCAA Men's Division I Ice Hockey Championship, with John Buccigross and Barry Melrose calling the Frozen Four on April 10 and 12 in Philadelphia.
10c. ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry says he will no longer work on fantasy baseball.
10d. Sports Business Journal's John Lombardo and John Ourand on the NBA's upcoming television rights.
10e. A PR executive for the Dodgers lifted the curtain on how sports news gets played on the team's website.
10f. ESPN Outside The Lines senior coordinating producer Dwayne Brey reported on the story of former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, now a member of the Indiana Pacers staff.
10g. The Dayton Daily News won the NCAA front page tournament last week.
10h. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas made a great decision with his first Twitter follow.