By Phil Stacey
When the opportunity presented itself for him to be part of a great team working in South Africa this summer — with the entire world watching — Michael Feinberg jumped at the chance.
No, he's not part of the U.S. soccer team that will be competing at the 2010 World Cup, which officially begins today. Rather, Feinberg is one of the 400-plus ESPN employees that are in the country to provide coverage of the world's most popular sporting event back home.
A Peabody native who now calls Cheshire, Conn. home, Feinberg will play a large part in helping ESPN producing all the pre-game shows, halftime shows and all of the surrounding programs (SportsCenter segments, for instance) from the World Cup.
"I came on board this project last August and jumped at the chance when it was presented to me," Feinberg said from Johannesburg during a recent phone conversation. "It's really an honor to work on a project like the World Cup.
"People were, for lack of a better term, hand chosen to do this for ESPN. So I'm extremely flattered that I was one of those people chosen."
The 43-year-old Feinberg, who graduated from Peabody High in 1985, then from UMass Amherst with a degree in communications five years later, is going back to his roots, so to speak, during his six weeks in South Africa.
Now part of ESPN management as a Coordinating Director in the Studio Directing department — he manages the associate directors and stage managers for a particular program and has a staff of about 80 people — Feinberg is thrilled to be back in the director's chair working at the World Cup.
"It's what I love to do," he said of directing. "To get back in the chair gets my adrenaline going."
Feinberg and his crew are located at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) with a set that overlooks Soccer City, that stadium that hosts today's first game of the World Cup (South Africa vs. Mexico) as well as the championship game on July 11. There are two other directors working with Feinberg, who has gone into this assignment with the mindset he'll be working every day he's there.
"Having a few months to prepare for this, it's still overwhelming," he admitted. "For (ESPN), it's more than just a sporting event; there are a lot of cultural events we'll weave in and out of our programming. We'll show back stories of different people, like you see at the Olympics, and show some of the strife and history of this country. All the music we'll present is African-based, and all the graphics have an African-tinged theme.
"It's going to be a good balance of both. We'll cover the events, but also the cultural aspects of the country."
Having began his career as a production assistant at WBZ in Boston running scripts to Jack Williams and Liz Walker for the 6 and 11 p.m. news, Feinberg eventually became a stage manager, associate director and finally a director. He also did some work at New England Cable News (NECN) as a weekend director.
He left in 1998 to go to MSNBC, where in his two years there got was schooled in the art of breaking news and how to best present it to viewers. He directed such milestone TV events as John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane going down, the Bill Clinton impeachment and the millennium celebration.
"I honed my chops there," he said.
A friend and former colleague, Deb Deely, asked him about working for ESPN, where she now worked, and which was much closer to his Connecticut residence than the long ride to MSNBC's studios in Secaucus, N.J. Incredulously, Feinberg told her "Nah, I'm happy where I am."
Fortunately for him, a job there came up a few months later, Deely told Feinberg about it, he interviewed and was hired the next day as a director.
"Exposed to the passion"
In the decade that he's been there, Feinberg has done from directing ESPNews and SportsCenter to working on such shows as NFL Primetime, Sunday NFL Countdown, Baseball Tonight, the NFL Draft, as well as many Super Bowls, the U.S. Open and even the 2003 World Series.
"You know, the year Aaron Boone beat us with that homer in Game 7," Feinberg, a diehard Red Sox fan, recalled. "We knew one way or another after Game 7 (of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees that year) that we were getting on a bus (from ESPN) going to either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park for the start of the World Series. Let me tell you, that was a miserable ride to Yankee Stadium."
The father of three boys (Matthew, 14; Drew, 12; and Ethan, 7) with his wife, Jill, Feinberg is excited for the challenge that this global spectacle presents. While admitting he's not the world's biggest soccer fan, he has learned more about the beautiful game than ever before by picking the brains of soccer's cognoscenti all around him.
"I'm sure I'll be exposed to the passion of the sport, which really dwarfs the Super Bowl," he said.
"Anyone who enjoys what they do loves a challenge, and because of the scope and scale of what we're doing, this is that much more magnified of a challenge. But I'm totally up for it."