The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Andy Gray versus Jack Edwards

Posted by steigs on July 9, 2008

Over at Pitch Invasion there’s a nice post by Richard Whittall acknowledging that ESPN’s coverage of the Euros was, you know, actually pretty decent:

ESPN also offered live, uninterrupted coverage of every game from start to finish. No ads for Ford suddenly covering half the screen during the attacking build-up play, no giant banners appearing from nowhere to advertise some horrific sitcom to air later that night, no tape delay, and no presenter trying to serve as interpreter for an audience presumed not to know or care about the sport.

This coverage was somewhat startling to regular soccerheads like myself, used to watching Euro games, often with smooth, skilled British commentators.  As Whittall notes, part of the problem with usual World Cup coverage from the ESPN/ABC family has been the need to explain the sport to the uninitiated.  Dave O’Brien’s never-ending “up close and personal” stories about the players, for example, were an attempt to give viewers a rooting interest in players they were presumed to have never heard of before.  The result was that serious American soccer fans felt like they were being talked down to — at best.  At worst, they simply flipped over to Spanish language coverage in an attempt to avoid the annoying prattling of the announcers who seemed so clueless.  (Cue a dozen bigsoccer threads of complaints.)

Whittall, perhaps because he’s a Canadian, thinks that a lot of the problem with previous coverage was all the nationalism involved as well:

This unnatural, flag-waving attempt to Americanize a game that already had a distinct national history (including a healthy, St. Louis-based league interest prior to 1930 and the Miracle on Grass in 1950) did nothing to preserve its autonomy or capture its unique American flavor. Viewers new to soccer were left with the image of a very slow hockey game played on a big grass rink, while Edward’s unrelenting patriotic exhortations underlined that the match was worth watching only to witness the USA beat the rest of the world at their own game.

Perhaps.  Certainly with no American team at Euro 2008, there was no rah-rah U-S-A style announcing to bother Whittall.  But, see, I’m an American and a fan of the American team.  I don’t mind an announcer who’s biased towards the US.  And I fully expect that come World Cup 2010 Whittall will be disappointed because whoever is announcing the US games — JP and Harksie, perhaps — will favor the US again, if perhaps not in a way that’s quite as easy to mock as Jack Edwards.  That’s because international soccer has become, at least in US sports culture, like the Olympics.  That, in fact, part of the charm to the casual American sports fan, the ones who don’t really know the difference between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich — but can easily grasp and enjoy Spain vs. Germany.  (Cue jokes about World War II or tapas!)  In an Olympic style environment, nationalism is going to be there when the US plays. 

What is improving, and I hope this will continue for the 2010 World Cup, is the willingness of ESPN’s announcers to assume that viewers know a little bit about how the game is played.  The gradual infiltration of soccer into American sports culture means that some understanding of the game can be taken for granted.  A whole lot of today’s sports fans played soccer when they were kids and now they’ve seen some World Cup games.  What was noteworthy about Euro 2008 was the way it drew decent ratings with no US team involved at all.  The “Olympicization” of international soccer means there is some appeal to games matching well-known teams even without the US. 

Finally, Whittall blames ESPN’s broadcasting style for the US-Portugal game not being a bigger event in US sporting culture.  Maybe.  But I would remind him that a game being broadcast in the middle of the night, US time, is hardly likely to generate a mass audience, particularly for a game where the US was not expected to have much chance of victory.  I don’t think ESPN helped — but it wasn’t the biggest reason, by any means.


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