Soccer viewers might be the world's toughest sports broadcast critics. They pounce on announcer mistakes and mispronunciations with the ferocity of a viper (Fox's Gus Johnson knows this all too well) and analyze performance the way a jeweler examines a gem. But they are equally boisterous about the sport's best voices, which is why Ian Darke and Martin Tyler are beloved in multiple countries.
The World Cup starts Thursday in Brazil -- you can read SI.com's World Cup television guide here -- and those who will call the matches for host broadcaster ESPN are of major importance to viewers. The broadcast assignments for the opening week have now been set, and that list now appears in this space as a bit of an exclusive; ESPN's soccer management kindly released the broadcast assignments to SI.com this weekend knowing the strong viewer interest here. I've listed the announcer parings below, along with the times (all times Eastern) and channels for each game.
WORLD CUP OPENING WEEK ASSIGNMENTS
June 12 (Thur.): Brazil vs. Croatia, ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET (Ian Darke and Steve McManaman).
June 13 (Fri.): Mexico vs. Cameroon, ESPN2, 11:30 a.m. (Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno).
June 13 (Fri.): Spain vs. Netherlands, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. (Jon Champion and Stewart Robson).
June 13 (Fri.): Chile vs. Australia, ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. (Daniel Mann and Kasey Keller).
June 14 (Sat.): Colombia vs. Greece, ABC, 11:30 a.m. (Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman)
June 14 (Sat.): Uruguay vs. Costa Rica, ABC, 2:30 p.m. (Jon Champion and Stewart Robson).
June 14 (Sat.): England vs. Italy, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Ian Darke and Steve McManaman).
June 14 (Sat.): Ivory Coast vs. Japan, ESPN, 8:30 p.m. (Derek Rae and Efan Ekoku).
June 15 (Sun.): Switzerland vs. Ecuador, ABC, 11:30 a.m. (Adrian Healey and Alejandro Moreno).
June 15 (Sun.): France vs. Honduras, ABC, 2:30 p.m. (Daniel Mann and Kasey Keller).
June 15 (Sun.): Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Derek Rae and Roberto Martinez).
June 16 (Mon.): Germany vs. Portugal, ESPN, 11:30 a.m. (Jon Champion and Stewart Robson.)
June 16 (Mon.): Iran vs. Nigeria, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. (Derek Rae and Efan Ekoku).
June 16 (Mon.): Ghana vs. United States, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman).
June 17 (Tues.): Belgium vs. Algeria, ESPN, 11:30 a.m. (Adrian Healey and Efan Ekoku).
June 17 (Tues.): Brazil vs. Mexico, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. (Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno).
June 17 (Tues.): Russia vs. South Korea, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Daniel Mann and Kasey Keller).
June 18 (Wed.): Australia vs. Netherlands, ESPN, 11:30 a.m. (Jon Champion and Stewart Robson)
June 18 (Wed.): Spain vs. Chile, ESPN 2:30 p.m. (Ian Darke and Steve McManaman).
June 18 (Wed.): Cameroon vs. Croatia, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Derek Rae and Kasey Keller)
June 19 (Thur.): Colombia vs. Ivory Coast, ESPN, 11:30 a.m. (Adrian Healey and Alejandro Moreno)
June 19 (Thur.): Uruguay vs. England, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. (Ian Darke and Steve McManaman).
June 19 (Thur.): Japan vs. Greece, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Daniel Mann and Efan Ekoku).
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. With the Stanley Cup Final in full swing, I empaneled four respected NHL media voices for a short roundtable discussion on the business.
John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor, ESPN.com NHL columnist
Sarah Kwak, NHL writer, Sports Illustrated
Bob McKenzie, NHL insider, TSN Canada
Aaron Portzline, NHL writer, Columbus Dispatch
(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.)
SI.com: How would you evaluate the quality of hockey coverage in the United States on all platforms, and why did you answer as you did?
Buccigross: The hockey fan in the United States, in totality, is greatly underserved in radio and television. The coverage is mostly done during the playoffs by people that are ignorant of the narrative. For the informed follower this makes this coverage largely a waste of time. Perhaps for those that don't follow the sport year-round this is helpful or informative enough in its small doses. I couldn't put myself in their ears to know its value to them. The Internet has an extremely deep well of hockey coverage. Great analysis, excellent columnists, and a collection of scrappy beat writers with great character. The NHL Network is underfunded by the NHL and should be a much stronger entity, but it's still a good place for some highlights, analysis, and NHL content. The NHL on satellite radio is also an excellent source of hockey discussion. When you combine Canada's media contribution to NHL coverage (and I think you have to) on the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, Center Ice Package, there still hasn't been a better time to be a hockey fan -- excellent coverage all the way around, plenty of video, analysis, and a growing metric crowd. You have to go find it but it's not that difficult to find and the rewards are great.
Kwak: I actually think the quality of coverage in the States is pretty good. It's the quantity in quality places (traditional major media outlets) that I think is lacking, particularly in the regular season. And because of that, I don't think there's a huge amount invested into hockey coverage. When I first started on the NHL beat seven years ago, at my first Stanley Cup Final, it seemed like all of the major newspapers sent their hockey beat reporters to the final -- even if their home team wasn't playing. But each year since, there seems to be fewer and fewer U.S. national writers covering the full Final. That said, I don't think there is any shortage of good, quality opinion and analysis out there, especially on the Internet. There are some local newspaper reporters/bloggers who are doing good work. But the thing about the Internet is that it's not always easy to distinguish U.S. vs. Canadian coverage, and it's not easy to distinguish smart, informed analysis and opinion from filler. Generally speaking, the Canadian coverage is better, particularly because, as I mentioned before, they invest in hockey and make it a priority.
McKenzie: To be honest, in terms of the Internet -- Twitter, media sites etc. -- I don't really differentiate between Canada and the United States for coverage. I don't see any big discrepancies in the quantity or quality of hockey coverage from those on Twitter or working for publications/sites in one country or the other. Twitter has allowed for a lot more voices to be heard and, for the most part, the more the merrier. The good people, regardless of whether they're from Canada, the U.S. or Europe, shine through. Those who don't have a lot to offer don't flourish. Whether it's a blogger or a beat writer or a feature writer, I love how many options there are to be informed and entertained with hockey coverage. The platform where I believe the biggest difference has been made is on conventional television. (Disclaimer on that, of course. I do a little work for NBCSN, so it's hardly an objective view, but I think the quantity and quality of hockey coverage with the NHL's national deal in the U.S. is light years better than it has been for a long time.) My sense, and it's more anecdotal than empirical, is the number of games and the manner in which they're presented can't help but contribute to the growth of the game in the United States. I also think the local team broadcasts have worked on quality control and, in many cases, are far better now than they were before.
Portzline: These are good times to be a hockey fan in the U.S. On a national TV level, the NBC Sports deal has been good for most fans. ESPN dictates the flow and glow of sports in this country, and it has some really good hockey people -- John Buccigross, Steve Levy, Linda Cohn, Barry Melrose, etc. --- but the network at large has pushed the NHL to second-class status, both on TV and radio. I deeply miss NHL 2Night, and I think I speak for many. Still, the game has grown and spread, and Gary Bettman was right to go with NBC. On a local level, it seems as if hockey writers were among the first to truly embrace blogging, podcasting, tweeting, etc. Newspapers everywhere have trimmed staff and cut travel budgets in recent years, but the way so many in this sport have embraced all things electronic has really helped close the gap. There are so many newspaper folks -- Kevin Paul Dupont in Boston, Michael Russo in St. Paul, Larry Brooks in New York, Helene Elliott and Lisa Dillman in Los Angeles, Adrian Dater in Denver, Dave Molinari in Pittsburgh, etc. -- who are such powerful writers. They really transcend markets. And let's face it: there's nobody quite like [Yahoo Sports writer] Greg Wyshynski.
SI.com: How forthcoming are NHL players in your opinion and why?
Buccigross: You ask boring questions, you get boring answers. You have to dig. Hockey players are programmed to be ultra selfless and attention-deflecting. That makes it difficult to get them to talk about themselves in any way. That is changing, however, and I think there are opportunities. The younger generation is different and prime to be more outspoken and compelling to the general audience.
Kwak: It depends. I think on the whole NHL players are more pleasant to deal with. They are relatively patient with reporters asking the same questions over and over, or explaining things to people new to the game. But that's not to say they are all wonderfully polite and kind. I'd be lying if I said I didn't hear a condescending tone from time to time in the NHL dressing room. As for being forthcoming, I think in certain situations they can be quite forthcoming. Some players are more open than others. Some just need to be in the right environment. But I don't think that's unique to hockey. In fact, I think hockey is probably one of the more conformist sports culturally. Being "one of the guys," is a high compliment in the NHL room. To me, it seems like they actively try not to set themselves apart in any way, shape or form. They reflexively defer credit to somebody else. They don't put stock into terms like superstars. Singling out one player seems like an impossible task. It's the ultimate team sport, they're all taught, and that has, in my opinion, stifled some individuality from its players. I find the older the player, though, the more forthcoming he is because they usually outgrow the pressure of conformity of the sport.
McKenzie: Players being forthcoming really depends on what it is you're asking and what you need. I spend a lot of time in a studio and don't deal directly with players as much as many in the media, so I may not be an authority on this. But it's my experience with NHL players, now and always, that they're generally cooperative and accommodating. That said, the opportunities to connect with the players on a deeper level aren't as prevalent as they used to be. I remember covering the 1991 Canada Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens and on an off day after practice, Wayne Gretzky would sit around the dressing room and hold court with the media there, talking about just about anything anyone wanted to talk about. That doesn't happen now as much, if at all, but I do believe that in a one-on-one environment where the player has some degree of comfort with his surroundings and who he's dealing with, NHL players are still tremendously accommodating, as a rule. There are exceptions obviously.
I've got a book coming out this fall and one of the chapters I wanted to do was on John Tavares of the Islanders and the story of his uncle of the same name, who is the Wayne Gretzky/Gordie Howe of Canadian box lacrosse. Last August, I emailed hockey John and told him what I wanted to do and asked if I could get an hour or two of his time for an interview. Less than a week later, I was sitting in a Starbucks in his neighborhood with the two John Tavareses and they couldn't have been more accommodating and forthcoming. Funny thing is, I wasn't the least bit surprised. I'm sure it's different in a daily beat environment but generally speaking, I can't say enough good things about dealing with players. But as I said, I only do it on a limited basis and my asks would be substantially different than a beat person.
Portzline: Hockey players are, for the most part, incredibly accessible and professional with the media, far more than athletes in other pro sports. (There are exceptions both ways, of course.) I was lucky enough, early in my career, to get a taste of covering the NFL, MLB, college football, minor-league baseball, and it really opened my eyes when I started writing about the Blue Jackets in 1999. It is a point of pride among hockey players to show respect to those in and around the game. It's part of the code, really, and veteran players are charged with upholding it. There are many days during the course of a season when some of the guys in the room -- or above them in management -- aren't particularly fond of you, or the pressing questions of the day are ones they'd rather not face. But they understand there's a job to do. Time-tested rule: if you chat with a player -- any player -- for any more than three minutes, you're going to stumble into a story. But the word forthcoming gives me pause. I think professional athletes of all walks have started to put up walls between themselves and the media, and social media has made it even easier for players to engage with fans and create whatever public facade they wish. Many players are incredibly comfortable, engaging and conversational, what I call "two-penners." (You never know where it's going to go, so have lots of ink ready.) Current Blue Jackets James Wisniewski and Brandon Dubinsky are "two pen" guys. So is the guy at the top of the organization, John Davidson. They are the exception, though. Most guys are congenial, but you really need to pry and ask pointed questions if you're going for something specific. Often, young players have to be coaxed into saying anything beyond hockey's well-worn cliches, simply because they don't want to attract attention. Players of all ages are reluctant to be quoted too often, lest they be seen as "me" guys or "talkers." To me, that concern is more prevalent in hockey than other sports.
SI.com: Who are some under-the-radar people in the hockey media consumers should be aware of?
Buccigross: I like Aaron Portzline and Mike Arace in Columbus. That market doesn't realize how lucky they are to have them. They are bright and curious. I could name 10-20 more so I'll stop there. In Canada, Bruce Arthur [Toronto Star columnist] is an excellent columnist, Tim Thompson makes beautiful and smart opening video montages for Hockey Night In Canada, and I think Hockey Night In Canada's coverage of the NHL is right there with College GameDay as the two best shows in all of sports in North America.
Kwak: Under-the-radar? Well, unless you're a real hockey fan, we're all under-the-radar! That said, some of the people I enjoy reading (and these guys are in no way under-the-radar for most reasonably fervent hockey fans) are Yahoo!'s Nick Cotsonika, Bruce Arthur and Eric Duhatschek for the Globe and Mail. Justin Bourne of The Score (Canada) is often an interesting read with a thoughtful perspective.
McKenzie: One of the really great things about Twitter is how specialized you can get with your follows. The draft and world of prospects is one I deal with, so [I'm] able to follow guys who cover junior hockey or do nothing but evaluate prospects. One of those guys who I think does an amazing job is Corey Pronman, who writes for ESPN. He does a great job. I could go on and on with a bunch of people like that, who specialize in one aspect of the game or another. There are a whole bunch of younger guys, some of them still in school, who follow junior hockey and track the young stars entering the OHL or WHL or QMJHL. Following them allows me to easily get a handle on the next generation of star players entering the system.
Portzline: This one is a struggle for me. Not because I can't come up with names -- there are so many -- but because some of the names that leapt to mind are pretty prominent in their own markets. The one writer I've always admired is Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun, who cuts through the chaos of that market with a smart, reasoned voice and an economy of words. If he's under the radar, it's only in the States. Seth Rorabaugh, who cranks out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Web coverage, does a really good job. I could go on. Nobody makes me spit coffee like Harrison Mooney [of the Vancouver Sun]. You should know all of these people.
1a. Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final -- a double-overtime win for the Kings -- averaged 6.4 million viewers, the most-watched Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on record (since at least 1994). Viewership for the game peaked in the final quarter-hour (11:30-11:45 p.m. ET) with 7.6 million viewers. NBC said the immediate quarter-hour following the Belmont Stakes averaged 9.1 million viewers.
1b. Here's the Game One Stanley Cup viewership over the past five years:
2014: 4.77M (Rangers-Kings)
2013: 6.36M (Bruins-Blackhawks)
2012: 2.9M (Kings-Devils)
2011: 4.56M (Bruins-Canucks)
2010: 4.43M (Flyers-Blackhawks)
2. When sports television debate is honest, thoughtful and not geared toward getting to the top of Twitter's trending list through Baylessian fakery, it can be really good television. Viewers saw that Saturday following Tonalist's win in the Belmont Stakes. At race's end, NBC Sports horse racing analysts Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey embarked on an interesting discussion about Victor Espinoza's ride of California Chrome. Moss thought Espinoza should have taken Chrome to the lead given the moderate pace (instead of taking the horse wide early and staying off the pace) while Bailey thought he rode "a really good race" and that the campaign and length got to him. No screaming, no nonsense, just two broadcasters intelligently discussing the replay. "I think the campaign and length of the race just finally got to the horse," Bailey said.
2a. NBC said its coverage of the Belmont Stakes averaged 20.6 million viewers, the second-highest Belmont Stakes viewership on record behind the 21.9 million viewers who watched Smarty Jones' Triple Crown attempt in 2004. Yesterday's Belmont was the most-watched sports event in 2014 since NBC's primetime telecast of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday, Feb. 16 (21.3 million). Remarkably, the rating was up 57 percent over the last Belmont Stakes where a Triple Crown was at stake (13.1 million on ABC in 2008 for Big Brown).
2b. The top-rated cities for the Belmont Stakes: 1. Louisville; T2. Fort Myers; Sacramento; West Palm Beach; 5. Baltimore; 6. Tampa-St. Pete; 7. Orlando; 8. Buffalo; 9. New York; 10. Boston and Knoxville.
3. The work by E60 staffers Jeremy Schaap and producer Beein Gim on the abuse of migrant workers building Qatar's World Cup stadiums was ESPN at its reporting best. I can't recommend their work more highly.
4. Kudos to NBC Sports horse racing reporter Kenny Rice for his handling of the post-race interview with Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn. Coburn was itching to go off on the Triple Crown requirements for horses, and Rice listened to his initial answer and asked the right follow-ups (Said Rice: "So if you had your way, you would say you have to run the Triple Crown or you can not come up in the Belmont and be a fresh horse?" and "So you think they came right after your horse, and that was the plan?"). Rob Hyland, the producer for NBC's horse racing coverage, said the plan for the broadcaster was to speak with the connections of California Chrome at some point win or lose, and that Donna Brothers would interview Espinoza win or lose.
Interestingly, longtime NBC horse racing host (and longtime horseman) Tom Hammond defended the series immediately by saying, "Some bitterness there from Steve Coburn. You know, the reason the Triple Crown is so tough is because there are rested horses that have not danced every dance."
5. Longtime college football reporter Tony Barnhart has moved from CBS to the SEC Network. He is expected to have a dual role on both television and writing for the SEC Network's digital platform. Another former CBS Sports staffer -- Tim Brando -- is also heading to the SEC Network.
6. A historic look at NBA Finals Game 1 viewership:
2014: 14.85 million viewers (Heat-Spurs)
2013: 14.2M (Heat-Spurs)
2012: 16.2M (Heat-Thunder)
2011: 15.2M (Heat-Mavs)
2010: 14.1M (Celtics-Lakers).
7. Sports pieces of note:
• Nice profile of U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinnsman by New York Times soccer columnist Sam Borden.
• William Nack's legendary story on Secretariat (Pure Heart) gets the SI Longform treatment.
• Very cool interactive elements in this Wall Street Journal piece on Klinsmann.
• SI's Seth Davis on why more women are not coaching women's basketball.
• SB Nation's Matt Negrin writes about living in a favela outside Rio prior to the World Cup.
• Ty Duffy of Big Lead Sports had an in-depth piece on the usage of Twitter by members of the of sports media.
• Ann Arbor-based writer John U. Bacon on why students — and others — are bailing on Michigan football tickets.
Non sports pieces of note:
• New York Times writer Simon Romero had a strong interview with Brazil president Dilma Rousseff
• Via The Boston Globe: A father's search for why his son died.
9. Think about this: ESPN employs a 62-year-old man -- who lied about his high school basketball career -- to make fun of a Hall of Fame basketball player in physical distress.
9a. On that same oleaginous note: ESPN vice president of production Marcia Keegan is charged with overseeing ESPN2's First Take. By all accounts she's a bright woman who is thoughtful and works well with on-air talent and production staffers. She's also smart enough not to enable this kind of trolling, as highlighted here. ESPN should aim higher than acting as a wrestling heel for hire -- and management knows it.
10. Steve Nash serves as the narrator for The84Draft, a documentary on the legendary 1984 NBA Draft (Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton) that airs Monday on NBA TV at 9:00 p.m. ET. Truthfully, NBA Entertainment has done better work than this doc, but the footage of Barkley and Jordan as first-year players is fun to watch and there's a great segment on Oscar Schmidt, the retired Brazilian professional basketball star who was drafted in the sixth round of that year's draft.
10a. Jason McIntrye of The Big Lead reported that NBC Sports staffer Alex Flanagan will no longer work the sidelines on Notre Dame games.
10b. USA TODAY interviewed Rick Reilly upon his final columns for ESPN.com.