Euro 2012 a Hit for TSN

Soccer is a sport ridiculed by many sports fans in North America. Left to a 30 second highlight package on sports highlights shows. A small two paragraph column in the local newspaper. However, it seems in the last four years this is beginning to change in Canada. More and more soccer, especially of the European variety, is becoming a mainstream sport. Now sports highlights shows are leading with soccer highlights, albeit partly for promotion in TSN’s case. Twitter is abuzz with Canadians of English, Italian, Irish, German backgrounds (as well as others) cheering on their teams. Even those who compete in, or cover, other sports for a living are watching.

No number is more telling that one sent to me by TSN last week. Average audiences for the group stage of Euro 2012 are up 154% over the group stage for Euro 2008. That is nothing short of spectacular. Although not entirely unexpected considering CBC’s 2010 World Cup ratings. The final for the 2010 World Cup between Spain and Holland cracked the 5 million viewers barrier. That’s a mark that usually only hockey, the Grey Cup and the Super Bowl hit. Yet soccer did it and the most well supported teams like Italy and England weren’t even playing. Many other games in 2010 buzzed around the 2 million mark.

While the audiences for Euro 2012 aren’t that high (yet), something has to be said for 731, 000 Canadians tuning in on a Friday afternoon to watch England beat Sweden. In fact the three England group stage matches, all on weekdays, averaged 705, 000 viewers. Euro 2012 ratings are consistently beating the Blue Jays on Sportsnet, despite the Jays playing in primetime. The knockout stages will probably post ratings at least equal to the opening weekend of the CFL season. Some early afternoon Euro games have even outnumbered the viewers who watched NHL playoffs on CBC in a similar timeslot a few weeks earlier. Of course nobody is saying soccer is more popular than hockey or football, or even baseball, in Canada. But it is right there. For one month it is just as big.

And with yesterday’s penalties thriller between England and Italy (maybe the two most popular European national teams in Canada), ratings will likely rise again for the quarterfinals. Italy vs. England should hit an average of 1.5 million viewers easily. Maybe more. And the semifinals? Could they crack a million viewers on a weekday? Considering the teams that are playing (Portugal, Spain, Germany and Italy), I think it is very possible.

TSN’s coverage of the tournament is more or less exactly what we expect from a Canadian network (whether it be TSN, Sportsnet or CBC) for a major international soccer tournament. While the faces are different than for Euro 2008, TSN has more or less followed CBC’s 2010 World Cup formula. The network’s top soccer host (Scott Russell for CBC, Luke Wileman for TSN), their top analyst (Jason de Vos for both networks) and a random British pundit (John Collins for CBC, Darren Anderton for TSN).

Some readers have complained that de Vos hasn’t played at a high enough level to provide proper analysis on a European Championship. I disagree. de Vos knows tactics inside and out. His halftime segment is among the highlights of TSN’s broadcast in my opinion. Many of the best analysts in sports weren’t the best. de Vos is especially critical, maybe too critical, of poor defense though. However, just because de Vos wasn’t as good a defender as Florent Malouda doesn’t mean he can’t criticise Malouda for poor defensive play. That’s the job of an analyst. It is no different than Darren Pang criticizing a top NHL goaltender.

My bigger problem is with Anderton. It isn’t that he’s a bad analyst. Or even that he’s wrong. He just doesn’t stand out, at all. I asked the question before the tournament and I will reiterate it now. Why Anderton? There are hundreds of English (or Scottish or Irish) football players who are now retired on work on TV in Britain. Why did TSN choose Anderton of all people? Surely someone who has actually worked in the TV industry before was available. And as one reader mentioned, why not bring in Aron Winter? Sure he would have been a last-minute choice as he was fired by Toronto FC days before Euro 2012 began. But he would make a great guest analyst. I don’t dislike Anderton, but he’s just boring. The same can be said for many ITV and BBC pundits though.

Luke Wileman is an exceptional host. While I prefer CBC’s Russell, this is one thing TSN really did get right. Vic Rauter was a serviceable host of international soccer for a number of years, but he doesn’t have the soccer knowledge Wileman does. My only issue with Wileman, and the TSN panel as a whole, is they discuss the same issue too much. It seems by the time Euro 2012 Tonight has aired everything has been said two or three times. However, the last-minute comments from the panel before kickoff are great. I’ve skipped most pregame shows because those comments are all I need.

There is one very bright spot in TSN’s coverage and he isn’t on TV nearly enough. I’m talking about Nabil Karim, who is actually in Poland and Ukraine “reporting” on the tournament for TSN. I put reporting in quotes because it seems TSN hasn’t given him ample airtime to report on the tournament. They should use him for pregame hits, postgame interviews (if possible) and off-field pieces. Surely a licensed rightsholder like TSN could score an interview with an England player (or any other player who speaks English) to show during their pregame show.

Speaking of reporters, I would really like to see postmatch interviews. It may be impossible for TSN to do these themselves (even with Karim on-site); however, even BBC or ITV interviews would be an improvement over nothing. Sportsnet will occasionally show Sky Sports’ interviews after Champions League matches. TSN should do the same for Euro 2012.

Last, but not least, is the one thing that actually drives me crazy about TSN’s Euro 2012 coverage. The international feed commentators. Well actually it is just one commentator. John Helm. On Sunday Helm misidentified Joe Hart, Mario Balotelli and Joleon Lescott as teammates at Manchester United. Many reading this column know the trio play for United’s rivals on the blue side of Manchester. He did correctly say Manchester City twice later in the match, but it doesn’t make up for such a glaring mistake.

Awkward, boring, delivery aside, this has been a horrible tournament for Helm. And today proved why he shouldn’t be anywhere near the microphone for worldwide audiences. He tends to provide viewers with useless facts, such as birthdays (did you know Jordan Henderson turned 22 one week ago?). Or marriages (by the way, turns out Federico Balzaretti’s wife is actually a ballerina, not a model). He also explained how extra time and penalties work in the 22nd minute. Much, much too early to discuss such matters. He misidentified players, said a free kick was a caution and made many, many other mistakes throughout the 120+ minutes of play.

For these reasons, I think TSN should use ESPN’s commentary with Ian Darke and Steve McMannaman for next Sunday’s final (which Helm is also scheduled to call). Canadians hear Darke and Macca every Saturday morning on TSN2. They are familiar voices who don’t tend to get a lot of criticism. Sportsnet uses Sky commentary for Champions League because it is superior. TSN should do the same for Euro 2012.

Dave Woods and Steve Bower have both been up to par for the international feed though. Both bring excitement to the game. This is something that is difficult to do without a co-commentator. I still can’t understand why international commentary feeds for Euro and the World Cup don’t use co-commentators though. They are just as plentiful as main commentators and usually make the broadcast more enjoyable. The Premier League and Champions League finals use them. As do all the major networks in Great Britain.

TSN’s Euro 2012 coverage probably could be a bit better. But based on past tournaments, it could also be a lot worse. I haven’t found myself wanting to watch BBC and ITV coverage online, which is a good sign.