When Ian Darke and Steve McManaman broadcast the European Championship final from Kiev on Sunday, they'll assume their audience back in the U.S. has a fairly deep knowledge of soccer and the Spanish and Italian players on the field in Ukraine.
‘‘I think it’s made such massive strides now that it really would be an insult if somebody like me and Macca came on trying to sort of teach people to suck eggs about the game,’’ Darke said. ‘‘I think they tune into it because they know it and they love it — or most of them do.’’
ESPN was criticized when lead broadcaster Dave O'Brien displayed a lack of soccer knowledge during the 2006 World Cup. For the 2008 European Championship final in Vienna, the network had Adrian Healey and Andy Gray provide commentary from a studio in Bristol, Conn.
Then two years ago, ESPN used Martin Tyler, Darke, Healey and Derek Rae — all British — as its four lead broadcasters for the World Cup in South Africa, and that September ESPN hired Darke as the primary soccer voice for its U.S. networks. He was paired with McManaman, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid star who had been a studio analyst at the World Cup. The duo have become a steady presence on ESPN’s Premier League telecasts, which air mostly at 7:45 a.m. Eastern on Saturday mornings and have become as much a part of weekend breakfast for American soccer fans as coffee and orange juice.
‘‘We’re on at an awkward time,’’ McManaman said outside London’s White Hart Lane one cold evening last winter before a Tottenham match. ‘‘Certainly if you live in L.A. sometimes we’re on at 4:45 in the morning, so it takes the hard-core group of fans who will watch it and will look at the Premier League and will want to watch the football at different times of day, no matter what time of day the game’s on.’’
He compares the expansion of the U.S. audience for big tournaments to his interest in American-style football.
‘‘I won’t avidly watch the NFL year in, year out, all the time,’’ McManaman said, ‘‘but once it starts to get round to the playoffs ... you watch it and you become attached to it. And then you want to watch the playoffs. Of course, you want to watch the Super Bowl, don’t you?’’
In an era when many sports struggle to maintain ratings, U.S. viewership of international soccer is increasing at a startling rate. The two semifinals averaged 1.91 million viewers, a 46 percent increase from 1.31 million four years ago. With both semis starting at 2:45 p.m. EDT, Spain’s penalty kicks victory over Portugal was seen by 1.95 million on Wednesday, and Italy’s 2-0 upset win over Germany was viewed by 1.85 million the following day. ESPN said the semis averaged 576,000 additional viewers on computers, smart phones, tablets and Xbox.
The first 31 matches averaged 1.2 million viewers on ESPN’s networks, up 61 percent from 2008.
ESPN President John Skipper has been among soccer’s biggest boosters in the U.S. The network’s streak of televising six straight World Cups will end after the 2014 tournament in Brazil, with Fox taking over for 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar, but ESPN has the 2016 Euros in France and a steady weekly presence with the Premier League, at least through next season, under a sublicense from Fox.
‘‘It’s clear that there’s been a significant upgrade in the attention we pay to the world’s sport,’’ he said.
Darke and McManaman have been on site for the entire tournament. While some first-round matches were broadcast from Bristol, ESPN had its announcers at the stadiums for all knockout-round games.
In Europe, American interest in soccer still is viewed with some skepticism. Darke remembers during the 2010-11 season speaking to Steve Bruce, then Sunderland’s manager, before broadcasting The Black Cats’ game against Stoke, a less than glamorous matchup.
‘‘He said, ‘Who are you doing it for?'’’ Darke recalled. ‘‘I said I'm doing it for ESPN in America.’’
‘‘Really? OK.’’ Bruce responded.
‘‘As he was leaving,’’ Darke remembered, ‘‘he turned around and said, ‘Us against Stoke? In America? What are you trying to do? Put them off?'’’