Broadcast week: Rating "ESPN FC" and "Fox Soccer Daily" in their first year

Steve Nicol has taken his discussion skills to ESPN. - Bob Levey

More options now, but does one network have an edge?

A major shift in soccer broadcasting took place this year, when Fox Soccer Channel ended its run and Fox reorganized its cable channels, creating FXX in FSC's place and adding Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 to compete with ESPN and its complement of channels.

On one hand, the demise of FSC meant one could not randomly check the channel to see if good soccer or soccer-related programming was on, nearly any hour of the day, every day of the year.

But both Fox and ESPN debuted new soccer-specific shows (the new SSS?) in 2013. Along with NBCSN's American "Match of the Day," which I've already written about, "ESPN FC" and "Fox Soccer Daily" demonstrated an evolution in soccer programming in the U.S.

Although I really like "Match of the Day," I don't think that program can be directly compared to the other two, because the objectives are so different. "Match of the Day" focuses on the English Premier League alone, and is meant to wrap up the day's coverage of all the games, featuring highlights the majority of the time and some supplemental studio analysis.

In contrast, "ESPN FC" and "Fox Soccer Daily" come from the mold of the other sport-specific shows on the networks, of a 30-minute daily program that covers news, highlights, and analysis.

In fact, there's actually a great deal in common on a general level between these shows. I would imagine interested viewers have probably settled on one program or the other to watch on a regular basis, as watching both leads to considerable overlap.

I've been watching both shows nearly every day for months, and I'd like to share my thoughts on each:

"ESPN FC"

I'd give a slight edge overall to "ESPN FC" for a few reasons. First, their Sunday night program is quite useful, as it lasts an hour, tends to go heavy on the highlights, and covers games from across Europe and sometimes Mexico too. The highlights are brief, and they don't do rundowns of every game in every league, but showing what's happening to the big clubs is certainly worthwhile and probably appeals to most fans.

They also bring in reporters at times, though most often guys like Gabriele Marcotti, Rafael Honigstein, and Sid Lowe provide as much opinion as they report news. I can't fault them for not breaking news every single day, but it seems like there's enough news that they could perhaps talk about that at least a little more than they do.

"ESPN FC" has a large rotating cast of pundits, and that's where the unevenness of episodes comes in. Of course, personal preferences are different for all of us, so viewers may have other ideas on this. I tend to like the episodes where there is a diversity among the group the most, and what I mean by that is a diversity among nationalities and leagues played. In other words, when there's one or two guys from MLS joining the EPL guys, it makes for a better show on the whole, since they tend to come at topics from different angles, and the Anglocentric snobbery is reduced. Along those lines, the shows where Steve Nicol, Paul Mariner, and Craig Burley feature on the panel have been my least favorite, as they all usually agree, tend to hold, shall we say, old-fashioned opinions about soccer, and frequently dismiss teams, players and leagues outside of Britain.

When Alejandro Moreno is on, there's often some topic related to Mexican soccer or MLS, both of which are interesting to me as those are the leagues I follow the closest. And I think Taylor Twellman has shown an ability to engage in actual discussion at times, something that is not really the modus operandi of ESPN shows in general.

And that's probably my biggest complaint about the show. Like the rest of the ESPN talky shows slate, "ESPN FC" tends to spin its wheels talking about some topic or another, often over and over again for weeks. Lately, it's been "Who should win the Ballon d'Or?" and the same pundits rehash the same points again and again. Hitting the sweet spot of having meaningful discussion in short windows of time and still being entertaining for viewers is tough, no doubt. But personally, I'd rather watch more highlights than hear one more time why Burley thinks its CR7 all day and not Franck Ribery, etc.

So "ESPN FC" mostly succeeds in my estimation, though a lot depends on the panel assembled for each show. Still, for the most part, they have found a formula and it usually works pretty well.

"Fox Soccer Daily"

Although ESPN debuted their new soccer show earlier in the year than Fox, the latter network of course had previously had an entire channel devoted to soccer. But though the Champions League and Europa League moved over to the new Fox Sports channels, the previous incarnations of a news, highlights, and analysis show stayed dead and buried.

Personally, I liked "Fox Soccer Report" when it was based in Winnipeg and the show was essentially built around Bobby McMahon, a terrific pundit who clearly did his homework but was down-to-earth and informative to viewers. Sure, the green screen set looked cheap, but I liked the bare bones approach, especially with the right pundit. The reboot of FSC's news show, "Fox Soccer News" was awful and I could not watch it.

But "Fox Soccer Daily" is different. They have a real life set in LA, and the show is basically built around Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda, though they sometimes rotate Cobi Jones and Brian McBride in as well. To a great extent, viewers' enjoyment of the show then comes from their opinions of Barton and Wynalda.

"Fox Soccer Daily" has a brisk pace, which is a positive and a drawback in my estimation. Sometimes, their highlights move too fast for my liking, and discussion is usually whittled to the briefest of soundbites, usually with little explanation or dialogue. It is slick, but there usually isn't any depth to speak of. And they spend nearly all their time on the EPL and Champions League, so the rest of the competitions from around the globe usually get short shrift. Since Barton and Wynalda have the most familiarity with those competitions from working on them for years, we don't hear much about what's happening in other European leagues, or what's going on in Mexico, or even MLS to a great extent.

However, this show does not get bogged down into the tired discussion points that sometimes trips up "ESPN FC," so while they might be overly brief, "Fox Soccer Daily" keeps chugging along, which is nice.

The best thing "Fox Soccer Daily" does is bring in original reporting. They started the show off with an exclusive interview with Landon Donovan, and every couple weeks get other exclusives or play a few minutes of interviews presumably taped within the global Fox/Sky network. I realize doing this costs money, but this is something they've done more than "ESPN FC" and have been able to actually break news this way.

"Fox Soccer Daily" is also pretty successful, though as I mentioned a lot of its success comes from whether you like Barton and Wynalda or not. If they can play up the snappy pace in constructive ways and continue to feature interviews, they should be able to find a niche that "ESPN FC" is not really taking advantage of.

Conclusions:

Overall, I think it's great to see both major sports networks devote time and resources to a daily soccer show. Though there is a lot of overlap between the shows, the tone and emphasis allows the shows to set themselves apart on some level. Probably the best option moving forward for each show is to play up their strengths, and really give viewers either a choice of watching the show according to their interests, or contribute to the overall landscape by offering essentially different programs to viewers. Time will tell if either show changes course in any real way in 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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