October 18, 2009

The voice that will guide American viewers through the 2010 FIFA World Cup is a familiar one to international soccer fans.

SI.com has learned that Martin Tyler, the venerable British announcer who was voted the FA Premier League Commentator of the Decade, has been hired by ESPN to be the lead play-by-play voice for the network's English-language coverage of next summer's tournament in South Africa. The formal announcement is expected this week.

"They made an approach and I was delighted to accept," Tyler said by phone from his home outside of Surrey, England. "The World Cup is a real challenge for any broadcaster because of the games every day. It's a test of stamina and skills. You expect the very high standards of the players at the World Cup, and I expect to be judged by the very high standards of the American audience."

Tyler has worked for the London-based Sky Sports network since its launch in 1991 and has called many of the Premier League's biggest matches. Since Sky does not own broadcast rights to the World Cup, Tyler has often contacted with other networks, including calling the last five World Cups for SBS Australia. He is also the voice (along with longtime Sky Sports partner Andy Gray) for EA Sports' FIFA video-game series.

Tyler said he does not plan to change his style for an American audience.

"I think I've been acquired for what I am and not what I might become," Tyler said. "The thing that I'd liken it to is what we have in reverse over here. We wouldn't put U.K.-based commentary on the NBA or NFL. The description of an American sport comes from American voices and I think maybe those who have made the decision about me would like to get, if you like, a more global feel to what is a global game. Of course the words are only incidental to the pictures in television. But you can help by pushing the odd phrase in the right direction."

Last year ESPN hired Gray to be its analyst for the 2008 European Championship and the British invasion continued last March with the hiring of director Grant Best, who worked with Tyler and Gray at Sky Sports and who directed last week's game between the U.S. national team and Costa Rica at RFK Stadium. Both Best and Gray pushed ESPN officials to inquire about Tyler's services.

"It's up to them for them to decide whether I am suitable for future engagements," said Tyler, who is signed for the World Cup only. "There are no promises on either side, but clearly if it goes well, it might be the start of a long partnership. This also suits Sky because I get the knowledge gleaned from these tournaments and they don't have to pay a penny for it."

The addition of Tyler amplifies ESPN's soccer evolution from using American announcers with limited soccer experience to seasoned international broadcasters. ESPN was crucified on blogs and the popular bigsoccer.com message boards four years ago for its choice of Dave O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa as its lead announcers for the '06 World Cup.

"After the ['08] Euros we said, 'OK, let's take the presumption that we are going from scratch and start looking at those who can contribute at the highest level to our ongoing efforts in the world arena of football," said Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president and executive producer, event production. "That's where our reevaluation has taken us and I think we are going to do very well with our coverage as a result. When you do take this kind of broad view of the world of football, Martin Tyler's name is always going to be at the top of the list."

Tyler said ESPN is considering having him call the U.S. national-team games in South Africa, though much will depend on the World Cup draw on Dec. 4. It's conceivable a broadcaster with Tyler's international experience might be better served calling a so-called "Group of Death" draw in the opening-round matches if some of the world's glamour teams are pitted together.

Drake said he expects ESPN to name Tyler's broadcasting partner around the World Cup draw.

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