This is it, two matches left in the World Cup, with the third-place match on Saturday afternoon followed by the championship match on Sunday. Then we, as Americans, go back to our normal run-of-the-mill sporting summers. Many at ESPN – more than 200 to be specific – get to come home.
Bob Ley has spent the better part of the last two months in South Africa as ESPN's lead anchor. He was gracious enough to spend some time talking with me for the 400th episode of our show, which you can listen to in its entirety by clicking that link.
We spent part of the interview discussing what the World Cup meant to South Africa, and Africa in general. I also asked him about some of his greatest interview guests, which included several sitting Presidents and an entirely fascinating story of his recent experience with Desmond Tutu. It's worth the listen just for that.
We conducted the interview through Skype, and I noted that it sounded like, despite being six time zones away, he was in the same room as me. In a way, the ESPN coverage has felt no different than other events, so we began there:
Ley: No, trust me, we're in Africa. It's my third trip here and you'll never mistake it for Bristol. The immediacy of communication is remarkable. I was on the set last night taping a SportsCenter segment around 11 locally and I look down at (my) laptop…and my daughter tried to Skype me. Thankfully I had the volume down, but unfortunately I had to decline it, which, you know, tears at your heart.
I have felt that two companies blew a huge opportunity capitalizing on this World Cup, one being Skype, because I don't know anyone who's not Skyping with their families instead of running up absurd cell phone bills, and the other is Slingbox. The other night I had a rare hour before I fell unconscious and I watched an episode of Treme on my DVR back in Connecticut. When I first got here, when I was still adjusting and you'd wake up in the middle of the night, I woke up and watched the Mets for a couple of innings on SNY, live. Slingbox and Skype, I think, really keep you in touch. I'll tell you, if anyone from those companies is (reading), you kind of missed a big chance here to market yourselves through this event.
DL: You're totally right. You've traveled all over the world covering sports. It totally changes, not just with not having to pay if you do Skype to Skype calls, but the sheer fact that you can do video. You can see people. It's like the Jetsons. I remember seeing that when I was a kid and thinking, "this is never going to happen in my lifetime" and now we can all do that. It's amazing.
Ley: I will tell you this, though, when you've been on the road – by the time I pull up stakes on Monday night and go it will be 42 days – when your wife turns on the camera and you see the dogs and the kids and wife and the house, it sometimes makes it harder to go back to work.
DL: Has it felt like sleep-away camp for you? It almost seems like that. Chris Fowler was probably gone longer because he was doing the tennis before that.
It almost feels like that to me watching you guys, like there's an excitement building for the finale, but it's almost a bittersweet excitement because I think everyone wants to get the heck out of there and get home.
Ley: Well, there's that, but I tell you…I think one of the great joys of this, and there are many – principally it's being at the greatest single sporting event in the world, and not for the first time – but the team they have assembled for us to work with, both on and off the air, everybody gets along. It's been a joyous – whether it's a coincidence, just the way the stars fell or somebody actually knew what they were doing – all the guys you see on camera, we all get along. Honestly.
I had breakfast with Ruud about 25 minutes (before the interview) and it still blows my mind: Ruud Gullit. Two-time World Player Of The Year. There's still that part of you, as a soccer fan, that says "my God, I'm hanging with Ruud and we're talking about this and that and he's got an air conditioning problem back at the house, he's dealing with an insurance adjustor and I'm telling him we're trying to plan a wedding back in Connecticut for my daughter.
Jurgen Klinsman, sitting around with Jurgen in the greenroom last week, just before the Argentina match and he's explaining to us the Germans put together this young team. Here's a guy, I broadcast his games in the 1994 World Cup. Roberto Martinez who is a delightful chap. Stevie McManaman, a great life force, and Chris (Fowler) and Mike (Tirico) who are the gold standard of what they do.
Everybody just enjoys each other's company. There's so much work to go around, there's no alpha dog issue here. It's a true team; I've never felt more a part of a team. We have 200 people here, plus a hundred locals that we've hired…
I've been with the company 31 years, and I've never been prouder to be part of a team than I have been for the last month.
DL: ESPN is obviously the face of American sports, especially with this event. Did you feel there was a conscious effort in the first few weeks for a hard sell? That you weren't sure that the American public was necessarily going to take to this? Maybe as the U.S. had a decent result against England and then should have won their second match and then did with their third match, there was a build and people really got captured by it.
Have you felt a difference in the audience and how you maybe cover the event, because now people are either really serious about it, because you're getting towards the end, or people have maybe grown with it over the last month and you feel you can talk on a higher level?
Ley: I don't think it's anything conscious beyond this: I've been broadcasting soccer in one way, shape or form since 1976 or 77 when I worked in local cable. This has been the constant push-pull, yin-yang in American television coverage of soccer (football) for generations: who are you trying to get into the tent and how do you get them into the tent? Do you take the time to explain…what the offside rule is and thing like that, or do you do a game assuming a certain level of knowledge?
I think to our vast credit – not ours, meaning mine certainly, but the people who are running this – they decided in the hires, with Martin Tyler and Ian Darke and Adrian Healey and Derek Rae on play-by-play, to get guys who know it cold and get analysts who know it cold and do the kind of World Cup I think all of us who love the sport have wanted to do their whole lives, which is: here it is, for what it is, the way we love it. Please come and enjoy the way we know it to be. I think it's been so well received it's a great joy.
People have risen to it. They've striven to understand. I'm getting feedback from people I never knew could get into soccer and suddenly they give a damn about that non-goal. And not even in the U.S. games. We're becoming a more mature soccer country. We've got a long way to go on the field.
DL: I made the point that when Landon Donovan scored (against Algeria), as great an event and as great a moment as that was here – and you still get chills when you watch that goal – that didn't win the 2010 World Cup, but I feel that it may have won the 2022 World Cup. I felt that was the most important thing for the U.S. to get out of the group and build this fervor – even for just a week – to show the people who on the selection committee for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that we really care. This isn't just something that's cute every four years, but that this matters to us. And, oh by the way, we're the only country who has the infrastructure of 60, 70, 80-thousand seat stadiums, we don't have to build anything, we're ready to host the tournament today, let alone 12 years from now. I think that's a part of what Landon Donovan did there. Maybe I'm overstating it.
Ley: No, you're not. I think, absolutely. I had some conversations with people involved with the U.S. bid and I think they share that sentiment. I'll tell you, Ruud Gullit is president of the Dutch side of the Dutch-Beglium bid for 2018 and they absolutely feel that getting to the final helps their bid. England's bid for 2018 is mired in some controversy because of the head of the FA having to resign.
Yes, and still to this day, there's never been a World Cup as profitable as the one in the United States, I do believe. No one has sold more tickets.
DL: You mentioned that everyone gets along. I don't know if you all stay in a house – a lot of times media people will all stay in a house together if you're there for that long – is there a reality show coming out of this because I would love to see Alexi Lalas and Ruud Gullit in a room together, sharing twin beds. That would be fascinating television to me.
Ley: At the base of our studio is a trailer where they have a camera, actually, where they can keep an eye on us if they are trying to find us to get us to the studio. Quite often, I think some of our best stuff has been off the air, and for obvious reasons you wouldn't put everything on air. The best thing I ever did was buy a little point and shoot camera before I came over here and I got some really great pictures of just the moments in the meetings and it's been an absolute joy…the sharing of stories, the back and forth. I can see us secreting cameras into the dorms here.
No, we're in a hotel, thank you. It seems almost like a lodge or a dorm. There's an honest comradeship and I'll tell you, there'll be some tears, I think, when we all break up Sunday night.
(Images via ESPN)
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