Richard Lenton talks to us about the FA Cup, Liam Gallagher, & David Stockdale paying for a poor shot on the golf course...

What do Disney and the quintessential FA Cup have in common? Not much you might think. But in 2009 Disney-owned US sports broadcaster ESPN snapped up a four-year deal to show the FA Cup in the UK from 2010-2011. This was a step into the unknown, however. Previously, the channel had shown Champions League, Bundesliga, MLS and the World Cup – never any English football. The deal, worth an estimated £60m, comes as a stab in the dark for an organisation with a penchant for all-singing, all-dancing US sports.

ESPN are one of the biggest screeners of US sport on the planet and are on the cusp of a new deal with NFL. The agreement will see them shell out anything from an astronomical $1.8 billion to $1.9 billion a year for around 9 years. That’s not their only platform for success. This April saw ESPN extend their deal with MLB to show a staggering 300 matches a season. With their aptitude for home-grown US sports, the company can clearly identify with its main target audience. So why are they now branching out and showing 25 live FA Cup matches a season, as well as 23 live Premier League matches?

Richard Lenton, a reporter and presenter for ESPN, believes the FA Cup is one of the biggest sporting draws in the world. He claims ESPN’s financial stability is a main factor in their success. They made around $4 billion in America last year. “ESPN went very hard for the FA Cup. We’re one of the biggest, wealthiest broadcasters in the world, much more so than Sky Sports” said Lenton. “The FA Cup is still relevant. Wayne Rooney is 25, has won a Champions League, but said the one he has always really wanted is the FA Cup.”

It seems viewers share Rooney’s cherishing of the FA Cup. Over 340,000 watched ESPN as Stevenage belied their position in League Two and beat Newcastle 3-1. A further 500,000 saw Leyton Orient snatch a last-gasp equaliser against a forlorn looking Arsenal side. With the final between Manchester City and Stoke attracting over 350,000 on ESPN, Lenton praises his employers’ decision to veer towards English football. “English football is some of the most exciting in the world. ESPN saw this before and had been trying to get involved for a while. Don’t talk to me about La Liga, our football is a lot better.”

The US giants have also managed to renew a sense of Englishness and tradition in the FA Cup. Before advert breaks, in an attempt to unveil the stories behind the people that make the FA Cup, ESPN screened footage of goalscorers from former “giant-killers” in their full time profession. One of these was Steve Cuggy, scorer of two hat-tricks in two cup campaigns for Margate, who worked as a fireman before managing Maidstone United. ESPN’s pursuit of the FA Cup’s roots led them to broadcast live for 12 hours live before the final – a laborious task for sure.

Arriving in London the day before the final, Lenton and his colleagues began to rehearse and plan everything to pinpoint precision. “It was just work, work, work, but everyone was brilliant – right from the producers, to the make-up people, to the runners” says Lenton. “With coverage and features starting at 8am and stretching across the entire day, ESPN is trying to extend traditions. I remember growing up in the 80s when I first started watching football. Back then the FA Cup final was the biggest day of the year. What’s more, it was the only live football on TV which made it even more special.”

If ESPN wanted an exciting final with a blot of Englishness in there for good measure, they could not have got a better result. Manchester City and Stoke started 11 Englishmen between them and it’s fair to say they are both sleeping giants. The two Northerners, both steeped in English footballing history, had not won a domestic cup since the 70s. Lenton, former editor of Football Punk magazine, believes the pitting together of two underdogs made for a more enriching atmosphere inside Wembley. “Both sets of fans were magnificent – the noise and colour was incredible. I don’t think you’d get that from sides who have been to Wembley or the Millennium Stadium for finals a lot in recent years. Fans sometimes get a bit complacent when they see success.”

There was one fan there, however, who made Lenton’s day more than most. “We heard Liam Gallagher was there and I couldn’t wait to get an interview. Oasis are one of my favourite bands and I love that Britpop sound. I interviewed him before the game and he was a lovely bloke. People can say what they want about him but he’s a really down-to-earth family man.” After Yaya Toure’s winner for Manchester City came the crowning of a dream-like day for Lenton. “Liam said on air that we could come back to his box if City won and the celebrations at the end were brilliant. His wife, Nicole Appleton, was in tears of joy.”

Like his interview with Gallagher, Lenton hopes ESPN’s coverage can bring out the personality of its interviewees, focusing on a chattier approach. “I like our coverage more than ITV’s”, says Lenton. “It’s more laid-back and our style of reporting is one those at home can relate to. I remember an interview I did with David Stockdale before Fulham’s 4-0 win over Spurs (link here for article... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWSS3uJzZzs). We were playing golf and it started to get a bit competitive. He then hit one in off the turf from about 40 yards out. It was amazing but he wouldn’t stop going on about it! Then when Ray Stubbs and the others were broadcasting he came over and really milked it. I’m quite glad I wasn’t there now!”

Small segments like these with Gallagher and Stockdale are what the FA Cup is about – people. It is refreshing to see that ESPN is shifting their balance towards the stories about those who make the tournament so special. Their footage of previous “giant killers” is another poignant and distinguishing touch. The American giants putting their hopes into the FA Cup is a wild leap for ESPN and let’s hope they do not fall where Setanta did. 

You can follow Alistair on twitter here & read more from Richard on his website www.richardlenton.co.uk