At ESPN’s South Africa HQ, the Biggest Surprise Is No Surprises

With the first round of the World Cup in the books and the knockout stage approaching, ESPN Executive Producer Jed Drake took a moment to step back and assess the work of his team through two exhausting weeks of production. The biggest surprise so far? The lack of surprises.

“We’ve got a very complex system here,” he points out. “We’ve shown off a couple of times with a shot of our primary control room so you get a sense of the size and scope. But, for an operation that’s over 300 people doing matches in nine different cities, there really have been very few problems.”

One hiccup did take place during France’s final game of the tournament, when ESPN lost a feed of the game coming out of its broadcast center in Johannesburg.

Jed Drake of ESPN at the ESPN Master Control Facility in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Luckily, Drake’s team has a backup system in place that allows the network to punch into the world feed through a completely separate satellite path, and that feed goes directly into ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT. Drake says that, within two seconds, the feed had been switched over to the backup.

“It may sound bizarre, but I was kind of happy that happened,” he says. “It proved to me that the system that we have in place does work and that we’re well-equipped to make sure that our coverage gets to our viewers.”

Changing the World
During the games, ESPN is at the mercy of the world feed, provided by Host Broadcast Services (HBS), but Drake says that, given the chance, he would not do anything differently.

“I think the world-feed coverage that HBS has provided this year is arguably the best world feed that I have seen,” he says. “This is the same group that covered the event in 2006 and brought in people who really understand the sport. Covering the world feed can be a tough exercise because their primary responsibility is to document the event. That means that the special shots or storylines that lean towards individual styles have to be wiped off the slate. These guys have to document the event, and I believe that they’ve done an exceptional job.”

One HBS replay that was cut notably short was Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal. HBS started the replay after the outlet pass from goalie Tim Howard that set up the play, but ESPN was able to go back in postproduction and get the full play to use in its highlights and feature packages.

Choice of Voice
As the tournament has progressed, Drake has made some changes to his initial talent lineup and found that his choice of four play-by-play announcers is no longer being questioned by soccer fans.

Martin Tyler, who called the USA’s first game of the tournament, will be calling the England-Germany game this weekend, and Ian Darke, who called the second two U.S. games in the first round, will handle play-by-play duties for USA-Ghana.

“We look at the matches that now become actual matches on the schedule as opposed to hypotheticals,” Drake says of the changes. “When Germany qualified to the knockout round and would play England, Martin [Tyler] and I had a chat about it, and he really wanted to do the England game, and we wanted him to do it. I think that our strategy with these announcers has paid off and America has warmed up to them.”

Prior to the beginning of the tournament, Drake says the question he was most asked was why he chose four play-by-play announcers to take the microphone in South Africa. Thus far, he says, the calls have been so good that “I don’t get that question asked of me anymore.”

Drake has decided that Tyler will serve as the play-by-play announcer for the tournament’s championship game on July 11 but has not yet decided on a color analyst.

ESPN Is In, Even If USA Goes Out
Although Drake is thrilled that the USA team has “caught lightning in a bottle” for ESPN, the executive is quick to remind all involved that the network is in South Africa to cover the entire tournament, not just Team USA.

“If you can stomach the drama, [the USA team’s story] is the ultimate thrill ride,” he says. “We are thrilled to ride this with them as long as they can, but I remind everybody that we’re here to cover the World Cup regardless of how the U.S. team ultimately does. We’re very pleased with where we are and what we’ve accomplished to that end.”

ESPN Research and Analytics reports that, during the first 10 days of the tournament, 99.2 million viewers — about one out of three Americans — consumed World Cup content across ESPN platforms. However, Drake so far is proudest not about the ratings or the multi-platform viewership the coverage has logged but about the camaraderie among the 300-person production team working in South Africa.

“It’s an amazing group of people,” Drake says. “They come from so many different backgrounds, countries, and cultures. That’s what we’ve built here by design, and, as a result, we’ve bonded as a team. I always say that the mark of a really great production is, you feel empty when it’s over. I’m quite certain that I’m going to feel very empty when this one is over because we are really enjoying what we’re doing and we’re all committed to it.”

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