ESPN’s New Commentator On Calling the World Cup: Stay Out of the Way
No, a much better soundtrack to have rattling around your head for the next several months would be the measured tones of Jon Champion, ESPN‘s newest commentator, who will make his debut for the American World Cup audience this summer. The only catch? Champion hopes you don’t remember him — at least not that much.
“It’s a bit like being a referee,” Champion told Mashable in a phone interview earlier this month. “In a sense, if I get noticed too much then I’m not doing my job — which is to caption the picture and not dominate the proceedings.”
Champion says this approach was instilled in him when he got his broadcasting start at the BBC more than 20 years ago. He’s since commentated on soccer for a range of TV and radio programs in the United Kingdom — including ESPN’s UK version — and covered six World Cups.
But this June marks his first time calling the biggest event in #sports for an American audience. ESPN executives believe that Champion can endear himself to American viewers similar to how another English commentator, Ian Darke, did during the 2010 World Cup.
“We were familiar with Jon from his time with ESPN UK, and we have always been impressed with his work and his knowledge of the game,” Jed Drake, an ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, told Mashable via email. “He calls a match in a very sincere, straightforward manner, and he gives you more than just play-by-play. He provides context and perspective, which is similar to Ian. We believe fans will embrace Jon during this World Cup, and he will call some big matches for us.”
Champion will call nine group-stage games, as well as several more once the World Cup moves on to its elimination stage. It’s the same sport he’s been covering for years, but Champions says his new audience will require a slightly different approach.
“I’m going to have to think about it a bit more, and I welcome that as a broadcaster,” Champion says. “It’s good to challenge yourself as a broadcaster.”
Much of that challenge lies in the USA’s booming — but still-fledgling — interest in soccer. Many American fans possess enough passion and knowledge of the game to rival anyone across the pond, but the American audience is also rife with more casual fans who couldn’t pick legendary Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo out of a police lineup. The trick, according to Champion, will be serving both groups of American fans who will make up ESPN’s massive Stateside audience.
“I’ll have to find a balance between explaining enough and not explaining too much,” he says. “It’s up to me to find that balance.”
Champion and his broadcast partner Taylor Twellman got a head-start on the World Cup together on Tuesday night, calling the USA’s pre-tournament tuneup against Azerbaijan for ESPN2 from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Before the game started, he opened a notebook, giving me a peek inside the mind of a veteran broadcasting pro.
There, laid out in painstakingly neat handwriting, was a bonanza of notes for the night’s match: the namesake of Azerbaijan’s home stadium, Candlestick Park history, the Costa Rican referee’s propensity for dispensing red cards, the USA team’s recent form, the Azerbaijan team’s recent form and more. Much, much more.
Champion had, it seemed, enough information to fill every second of silence during the night’s broadcast. But — just as he’d mentioned over the phone several days prior — he hoped to stay out of the way and in viewers’ subconscious, like a referee who avoids becoming a game’s central story.
“If the game goes well, if it’s a good game, I won’t need any of this,” Champion told me, waving a dismissive hand at the open folder on the counter next to him. “Hopefully the picture will be good, the noise will be good, so — let it ride, really. That’s usually my philosophy.”
One he — and ESPN — hopes American World Cup watchers will appreciate this summer.