Sports fans who want a little more out of their televised games than action narrated by an aged jock trading tired observations with a catchphrase-spouting hairdo (see Fox's baseball team of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck, respectively), ESPN's coverage of the Euro 2012 soccer championships has been a joy.
In particular, the English duo of announcer Ian Darke and color man Steve McManaman, a retired midfielder who played with Liverpool and Real Madrid, combines crackling commentary with occasionally bizarre discussions. McManaman, whom Darke joyfully refers to by his nickname "Macca," mused early in the tournament that Holland is a "country so flat you could watch your dog run away for five days."
Thankfully soccer broadcasts no longer need to act as remedial courses aimed at viewers presumed to be ignorant of the rules, strategy and personalities. Darke and McManaman are accustomed to dealing with English soccer fans and don't dumb down their commentary for Americans, which is refreshing.
Also entertaining is the action in ESPN's studio, starring former U.S. men's national team defender Alexi Lalas and former German midfielder Michael Ballack. Lalas likes to talk. A lot. He had no trouble going on and on about England's tie with France in the group stage a couple weeks ago. Ballack, a far more accomplished player than Lalas was, keeps his commentary brief and to the point, owing either to English being his second language or a stereotypical German efficiency. He capped Lalas' gushing remarks about England with a simple "I'm not impressed."
Ratings indicate ESPN's formula is working. Viewership for Sunday afternoon's Italy vs. England match was nearly as high as for the network's evening broadcast of a Yankees vs. Mets baseball game. The games have been fantastic, but it's the personalities that really engage the viewers.