SBJ/20100607/SBJ In-Depth

ESPN’s Ley looking forward to another World Cup

ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” host Bob Ley is the network’s most experienced soccer voice. In the 1970s, he served as public address announcer for the New York Cosmos of the defunct North American Soccer League, before landing at ESPN. Ley first started working World Cup games for ESPN in 1982 and will be a big on-screen presence during the network’s coverage from South Africa. A few days before taking off for the World Cup, Ley spoke to SportsBusiness Journal about what he expects from the monthlong tournament.

You’ve been to South Africa twice. How ready is the country?
LEY: There might be some paint drying on June 10, but they have fulfilled every promise they made when they got this Cup. This was always going to be an African World Cup. It’s going to be staged safely and securely. But it’s going to have an African flavor. Not everything is going to be exactly the way you anticipate. But the matches are going to be organized well, and the stadia will be ready.

When you first started at ESPN in 1979, could you imagine a day when it would cover soccer as heavily as it’s doing now?
LEY: I think back to 1982, the first World Cup I worked on. It was definitely a niche sport. It was a bit of an oddity. There was a bemused tolerance for it across much of the work force. But it was designated last year as one of our company priorities internally. John Skipper [ESPN executive vice president of content] is one hell of a soccer fan. But there’s a lot of business acumen behind all of this — the understanding of the shifting demographics in the country and the rising profile of the sport.

Bob Ley has been covering World Cup matches
for ESPN since 1982.

Can the World Cup help MLS?
LEY: The NHL is struggling somewhat with the same issue of trying to take Olympic success and have it translate to domestic success. MLS has a business plan in place. They’ve been successful with that. They’ve got soccer-specific stadia. The next step is an upward curve in quality of play. If you can get more marquee players not on the downside of their career, then you’ll see the interest continue to grow. We live in a world where, on a Saturday morning, you can watch seven or eight matches from the best leagues in the world. That’s the environment in which MLS is competing.

What’s your most memorable World Cup moment?
LEY: It’s got to be hearing 80,000-plus Frenchmen singing “La Marseillaise” at Le Stade de France in 1998. The night they played Brazil for the final, they were in the fullest of throat. You got goose bumps. You really understood that there were tens of millions of Frenchmen there in spirit at that moment.

What story is under the radar at the moment that you think will be a big one for this year’s World Cup?
LEY: We may see an African nation catch a little magic in a bottle and get the sense of what it’s like to get a continent to put their spirit behind a team. I’d love to see that happen. I don’t think anyone realistically thinks that will be South Africa. It might be the Ivory Coast. But if an African team can advance and, maybe, get to the semifinals, wow. Then you’ll really have a sense of what this means, not just to South Africa, but to the entire continent.

Who will win it all?
LEY: William Hill, the bookies in London, has Spain as the favorites at 4-1 odds. They’ve never won. Just on the basis of the array of talent, I will take Spain.

How far will the U.S. team go?
LEY: Not only can they get out of the group, if the stars are aligned they can win the group and maybe even avoid Germany in the second round. Realistically, I could see them reaching the round of 16 against Germany.

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