Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas, center, kisses the trophy as the...

Spain's goalkeeper Iker Casillas, center, kisses the trophy as the team celebrates on a stage set up for the team in Madrid a day after they won the 2010 FIFA football World Cup. (July 12, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

The fact that ESPN endured one of its most inglorious moments smack in the middle of one of its finest should come as no surprise.

I learned long ago not to generalize about the work of the Worldwide Leader, given its vast and varied empire and the uneven parade of colorful characters that cross its screens, from Darke to Gray.

So let's get to it and wrap up two episodes that climaxed while I was on hiatus:

ESPN spent years planning its World Cup coverage and vowed the biggest effort in its three decades, and it paid off.

The network treated the event in a way that both respected avid fans and made novices feel welcome. We also met voices unfamiliar to most Americans, such as Ian Darke, whose call of Landon Donovan's game-winner against Slovenia was an instant classic.

Viewers responded, with ratings up 31 percent and viewership 41 percent on English-language TV compared with 2006.

For Sunday's final, 8.1 percent of American homes were tuned into ABC.

New York was third among 56 major markets with 13.1 percent of homes watching, behind only San Francisco and San Diego, and finished the tournament second to Miami in average rating at 3.6.

The best thing about that 13.1 Sunday is that it beat the 10.4 in New York for Thursday's special on LeBron James' free-agency announcement.

The James show was the polar opposite of the World Cup - a hastily slapped-together mess in which ESPN ceded too much control to James' camp, including allowing non-ESPN reporter Jim Gray to do the initial interview.

Nationally, the event attracted an estimated audience of 9.9 million.

That is a big number for that sort of show, but still (thank goodness) far less than the 24.3 million Americans Nielsen estimates watched the World Cup final on ABC and/or Univision four days later.

It was the most for a soccer game in American history, surpassing the previous mark of 19.4 million for U.S.-Ghana two weeks ago.

British Open on cable

The British Open will be produced in HD for the first time this week, and ESPN will have 35 cameras of its own, allowing it to rely less on the often-maddening BBC feed than in the past. And coverage will begin at 4 a.m. Thursday, the better to capture Tiger Woods' entire round.

Those are pluses for viewers. But in historical terms, the Open will be recalled as another milestone in the migration of major events away from broadcast TV.

The entire event will be live on ESPN, not ABC, its sister network. Later this year, most of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup will appear on ESPN, as will the BCS Championship Game in January.

"The delineation between broadcast and cable, those days are over,'' said John Wildhack, ESPN's executive VP of programming and acquisitions. "I think if you ask anyone under the age of 40 what the difference is between cable and broadcast, you'll get a quizzical response.''

 

Andrews re-ups with ESPN

Like the Yankees, ESPN usually keeps or gets its man (or woman) in free agency.

The Bristol Stompers entered 2010 with the contracts of three big names due to expire, and now they have retained all three, with Erin Andrews joining Chris Berman and Bill Simmons.

Andrews will have a limited hosting role on an expanded "College GameDay" and make non-sports contributions to "Good Morning America" on ABC.

There had been speculation she might bolt in the wake of her run on "Dancing With the Stars." But she insisted she preferred to remain at ESPN and mostly was happy with her role as a sideline reporter.

Voila! Carry on, America.

 

Sheppard one of a kind

Listen carefully to the surviving film of Don Larsen's 1956 perfect game and you can hear the familiar voice of Bob Sheppard making announcements as fans file out of Yankee Stadium.

By then, he already was in his sixth season on the job!

Fifty years later, he still was at it and still at the top of his game. Remarkable.

I first met Sheppard, who died Sunday, in the early 1990s when I was covering St. John's basketball and he was announcing for his alma mater. When I speculated in print that he must be in his early 80s, he was furious.

Nearly 20 years later, on Thanksgiving morning 2009, I reluctantly bothered him at home to follow up on a report that he had retired. At last, he came clean.

"Let me start from the bottom: I am now 99 years old,'' he said. "I don't think a man 99 years old goes back to work after two years of separation."

Wait: Did he just admit his age publicly for the first time? "It's been in the paper," he said. "It's been in Sports Illustrated. It's no secret."

I asked Sheppard whether he might like to someday dine in the press box lounge named for him at the new stadium.

"If the price is right," he cracked, still clear, concise, correct after all those years.

 

Jennings 'fights' on

Worth a look Wednesday night on the Channel 9 news: Russ Salzberg catches up with Dave Jennings, 58, who excelled as a Jets and Giants radio analyst after punting for both teams.

Jennings was slowed and eventually sidelined from radio work by Parkinson's disease.

"He's a fighter, but you can certainly tell there is a slowness to his gait and a slowness to his speech,'' Salzberg said. "His problem, and he'll be the first to tell you, is word retrieval. It's more painful because you know what he wants to say but he just can't say it.''