ESPN's Bob Ley Talks World Cup Fever, Landon Donovan's Snub (Q&A)

AP Images; ESPN
Bob Ley

With the U.S. national team's most famous player off the roster, fans are getting fired up and tuning in; "We couldn't have bought this kind of attention for our World Cup coverage," Ley tells THR.

After covering soccer for 40 years and traveling to seven World Cups around the globe, ESPN announcer Bob Ley still gets excited about the tournament, and reveals why U.S. fans are talking about it -- and will be watching it -- more than ever this year.

As the host network of the 2014 FIFA World Cup when it kicks off in Brazil on June 12, ESPN will air 290 hours of studio broadcasts and 64 live matches, as Ley and his team set up base on Rio de Janeiro's famous Copacabana Beach for six weeks. 

"It is possibly the most spectacular setting of any sports broadcast ever, and I will have the company of people who have played international soccer and are experts in their countries," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "To sum up my job in three words -- it doesn't suck!"

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How has the surprise omission of Landon Donovan impacted interest in the World Cup?

People have been saying that ESPN needs Landon Donovan on the team for ratings, and it shows a total misunderstanding. For the past five days, we couldn't have bought this kind of attention to our World Cup coverage. Whether it is the right or wrong decision, we won't know until the final whistle is blown against Germany on June 26 -- but it has got people talking about it.

This is part of the formation of a proper football [soccer] nation. You need those moments to captivate people, so the discussion is great and Donovan has been very classy about it. 

We couldn’t ask for a better preparing of the field. These are the same discussions [ESPN staff] have over dinner and on planes. Everyone is talking about it so it has increased the attention.

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What is your response when people get upset about Jurgen Klinsmann not selecting the star player from the 2010 squad? 

First of all, I tell them, "Explain to me the offside rule and name five more players on the team!" Now they are going to learn about the game and they are going to care about the rest of the team. 

One of my most memorable World Cup moments ever is Donovan's stoppage-time goal against Algeria in South Africa [which sent the U.S. into the second round]. That, and interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu!

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Is this increased interest in soccer a growing trend in the U.S., which has long been dominated by the NFL, the MLB and the NBA?

I think there has been an increase in passion about soccer since 2010. What [ESPN] did for the World Cup in South Africa was a game-changer --- for both the company in terms of how we covered major events with authenticity and in how Americans viewed the sport. With the time difference from South Africa, the matches were on at 7 a.m. EST, but people were still getting up and spending the morning with us. People bought in even though the U.S. only played four matches; we raised the consciousness a great deal.

NBC also does a tremendous job with their coverage of the Premier League -- now that is on the radar of [an American] sports fan when before, it wasn't there. People are adopting teams, and you get so much international and domestic soccer. You can watch as much in this country as you can anywhere else in the world, and the marketplace is proving that the support is there for it. 

Has it ever been like this before?

It is an amazing transformation, but there was a great interest in the late '70s and '80s [in the North American Soccer League, which operated from 1968 to 1984], and we saw crowds of 80,000. People were scalping tickets, but then [the league] overspent, they didn’t have a viable economic plan and then it slipped down the rank of sports. Conversely, the MLS had a slow and steady progressive growth and a strong business plan, and they’ve done it smartly.

With only an hour's time difference between Rio and New York, and four hours to Los Angeles, do you anticipate that will help with ratings?

The timing is heaven — the first match is noon EST and the last at 6 p.m. EST. It is going to be an incredible advantage for us. I don't deal in numbers — I am going to let the corner office deal with the ratings — but I predict that the economy of the U.S. is going to take a six-week hit! Productivity is going to plummet.

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What are the major concerns about going down to Brazil, in light of crime and reports of construction issues with the stadiums? 

This is a burgeoning nation with an exploding middle class, trying to manage its emergence into a first-world economy. There have been some violent demonstrations, and all of the Brazilians are pissed off about the cost of it and the corruption that has been disclosed, but the games will be played. Three of the stadiums have some questions about them — I would not want to be sitting in the stadium in Sao Paulo, which has 20,000 temporary seats that have yet to be tested fully and the roof isn't finished. It is almost at a defiant point of pride now for the Brazilians, their attitude is, 'We're doing this our way and lay off.'

It is also a political issue as this is an election year and the president is up for reelection. There is no doubt that her fate will have a tie-in with the success of the Brazilian team, so it is a melting pot of issues.