The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Soccer Diplomacy

Posted by steigs on June 25, 2008

My day job is in politics.  I don’t discuss it (much) here but sometimes I do daydream about ways we can improve America’s image through the “beautiful game.”  So, a modest proposal: President Barack Obama should attend a game at the 2010 World Cup.  (Assuming, of course, that he wins the November election.)

I’ve been watching Euro 2008 and a staple of the television coverage is the cutaway shot to the celebrity and/or politician fans.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly prominent:

She has even chided German winger Bastian Schweinsteiger for being suspended for the Austria game. He said: “She told me that I shouldn’t do the same stupid things again. When Frau Chancellor says you have to do something you have to do it.”

Germans have been charmed by her enthusiasm, which with a general election expected next year, she may find useful.

If a President Obama traveled to South Africa to watch, say, a US-Ghana rematch with his Ghanian counterpart, you know that the worldwide television feed would show him every chance it got.  And the message sent would be, to paraphrase US Weekly, “Americans: they’re just like us.”  In the wake of the last few years, we need to reassure other countries that there are shared values, that the US is not simply an angry, alien land. 

Obama is already something of a continental hero in Africa — a trip to South Africa for Africa’s first World Cup would be wildly popular there and seen as a gesture of respect, much like President Bush’s plan to attend the Summer Olympics in Beijing. 

I recognize that Barack Obama is not known as a soccer fan, although the British tabloids seem to think he supports West Ham.  His love for basetball is abundant and authentic.  But he is clearly a serious sports fan and the World Cup has become a popular sporting event in the US.  As such, he might even have a great time — and having millions and millions around the world see him doing that would be worth more than most public diplomacy initiatives dreamed up around Washington can achieve.  Barack Obama has written eloquently of how America is viewed in the shantytowns around the globe.  Here’s a simple trip he could take that would bring him into all those shantytowns at once.

Oh, and for his domestic political advisors, here’s a thought:  Have a President Obama attend the next US-Mexico World Cup qualifier in 2009.  Millions of Hispanic voters will be watching!



Posted in Euros, Television, US, World Cup | 1 Comment »

ESPN’s Euro 2008 Ad campaign

Posted by steigs on May 21, 2008

I was a huge fan of ESPN’s World Cup 2006 ad campaign, perhaps in part because they used U2 for the soundtrack.  With “Worldwide Leader” taking a run at showing Euro 2008, I was curious to see how they’d try to sell it to Americans, given that the tourney not only lacks a US team (duh) but also the English. 

EPL Talk has collected the first five ads and the answer is…national stereotypes!  Some are complaining about this.  (I’m looking at you, Italy World Cup blog.)  Me, I think it’s a good idea.  After all, the average American sports fan would be hard-pressed to recognize 99 percent of these players.  But they know these countries.  So make it about the Italians, not Luca Toni.  Or the Portuguese, not Ronaldo.  Heck, I’m not sure most European fans know much about the defending champion Greeks anyway, aside from that magical run of 1-0 victories in Portugal four summers back. 

My favorite is the Italian ad.  Let’s face it, they do complain a lot.  The Portugal ad has the best highlights.  (Thank you, Ronaldo.)  And the one for Spain just seems wrong — the tagline is “All Surrender to Spain’s Red Fury”  WTF?  They choke in every tourney.  The main red fury I’m aware of is that directed at the team by Spanish fans every two years.

Still, I’ll give’em a B+.  Give me a great Dutch ad or a funny French ad and I might go to A-.  (Seriously, where are they?  I’d think they’d be more promot-able than Spain.)  And I’d think a Russia ad would be easy enough.

But I think we all would agree.  The latest Nike ad, the first person “Take It to the Next Level” commercial, is the best currently running.  Seriously, it flat out rocks.  Go watch it now!  That’ll get you more in the mood for Euro 2008 than anything ESPN is running.

Posted in Euros, Television, US | Leave a Comment »

Sport and Empire

Posted by steigs on February 5, 2008

Simon Kuper is the pioneer of writing about soccer as an international game and how it interacts with politics, economics, culture.  If you haven’t read his ground-breaking Football Against the Enemy — also known as Soccer Against the Enemy — then you really should just go straight to Amazon and order it now.

These days Kuper has a column in the Financial Times and this past Friday he had a doozy, an exploration of the way a British game (soccer) leads the world long after the sun has set on the British empire while American games (outside of basketball and a few spots of baseball interest) have little traction outside America.  There’s a host of ideas tossed off in the course of the piece — it could easily be expanded to be a New Yorker article or even a book.

As Kuper puts it:

This is a struggle between two very different types of empire: the British (which, contrary to popular opinion, still exists) and the American (which, contrary to popular opinion, may not exist). Emerging from the struggle is a new breed of sports fan.

As best I can tell, Kuper thinks that fan is one who watches sports on television, the spread of which represented a “second wave” of globalization in sports.  The simpler the game, the better it translates.  (Tough luck, American football or cricket!) 

It also means, he argues, that the EPL benefits from its heritage, that century of tradition that makes a team from struggling post-industrial cities like Liverpool or Newcastle globally known.  With the advent of cable television and niche broadcasting:

A century-old model of fandom – the man who supports the home-town team he inherited from his father – is collapsing. In the US, China and even Argentina, people increasingly watch Manchester United on TV. Chinese and American soccer fans mostly came of age during the second wave of sporting globalisation. They prefer the real thing to their obscure local teams. For the same reason, the NFL closed its offshoot NFL Europe last year after 16 fairly anonymous seasons. In future, American NFL teams will visit Europe instead.

Global fans want global leagues, above all the NBA or the Premiership. It’s therefore wrong to think that Beckham will save American soccer by playing for the LA Galaxy. American soccer is alive and well and watching Manchester United on Fox Soccer Channel. This is a posthumous victory for the British empire.

This is at the heart of the struggle MLS faces.  The more World Cup and EPL soccer becomes a mainstream sport in the US, the more MLS looks second-rate.  One answer is to, of course, import David Beckham and a few others to bring glamour and international track records to the league. 

But here’s another point.  If I were at MLS HQ, I’d be paying attention to the fan experience and encouraging fan culture.  The enthusaistic fans of Toronto FC or DC United make attending an MLS game a more enjoyable thing to do — and it’s something that an American can’t get watching a game from Europe.  Get that passion in the stadiums and also try to convey it on television.  This is something that moving to soccer-only stadiums will help with.  There’s only so much that can be done to convey excitement in a mostly empty Giants Stadium or Arrowhead Stadium.  Then Americans can watch Man U or Arsenal and then try to replicate what they see here at home. 

Posted in England, Television, US | 1 Comment »

Awful, and not so awful, announcing

Posted by steigs on January 23, 2008

This one is for the good folks at Awful Announcing, doing their best to keep the airheads populating the airwaves on their toes…

 So Soccer America says that ESPN is changing its announcers for MLS games — we’re getting JP Dellacamera and John Harkes this coming season, not Dave O’Brien and Eric Wynalda (and sometimes Tommy Smyth).   There’s also talk that Bruce Arena could join the telecasts. 

The American soccer fan community has long had a hate-hate relationship with ESPN and its broadcasters.  We griped about the previous first teams.  (With some reason — Ty Keough, to name one, was just a clown.)  But Dave O’Brien at the 2006 World Cup was a new level of disaster.  Sure, he has a good broadcast voice, a familiar one to baseball fans brought in, it was said, to help non-soccer fans acclimate to the World Cup.  He made matters worse by continually spouting trivia, as if trying to prove that “I do too know soccer,” but got enough wrong to have that knowledge exposed as a recent cramming exercise.

 The real problem, though, was he had no feel for how to call a soccer game.  He kept going off on “up close and personal” style human interest stories in the middle of the game.  It was like he didn’t understand that action more than 20 yards from a goal could actually be important.  Argh! 

It was the most important set of games the US will play for four years and there’s this prattling clueless guy doing the play-by-play.  I think one reason fans were upset over the team’s performance in ’06 was that they were already in a state of irritation from the broadcasts.  Really.

The coverage was significantly worse that my regional cable network offers for DC United.  What’s a fan to do?  What a fair number of the hardcore fans did was flip over to the Spanish language coverage, even if they didn’t fully understand the language.  At least they weren’t being continually offended.  It was like ESPN had decided to tell the true believers that they didn’t matter at all.  It was the anti-W strategy — tick off your base.

The color guy, Marcelo Balboa, wasn’t as bad, just kind of inarticulate.  He wasn’t nearly good enough to help cover for O’Brien.  It was, to the serious fans, a disaster of the first order.

Come MLS ’07, we still usually got Dave O’Brien.  I give the guy credit for being a pro — he had learned some about the flow of the game.  There was less showing off of trivia, less meandering human interest tales.  (Perhaps the latter was because there weren’t any non-serious fans to appease, aside from those few games where Beckham was sitting on the bench.)  He was no longer a disaster, just mediocre.

Instead of Balboa we got…Eric Wynalda, who is much, much better.  Not afraid to call out bad play.  Not afraid to criticize a coach.  Arrogant, yes.  (He was a goal-scoring forward, after all, a breed with the self-confidence of fighter pilots.)  But he makes watching a game much more interesting.  He provokes.  Heck, he even did some non-soccer sports radio for ESPN last year.  An American soccer legend getting to comment on other sports?  We’re mainstream now!  Go Eric!

Unfortunately, it appears he also provokes off the field, such as his spat with Jim Rome, who is a jerk but also an ESPN broadcaster.  So they’ll shuffle Eric off to the Champions League ghetto, it appears.  Perhaps the ESPN international audience will appreciate his attitude.

So for ’08 it appears we’ll get JP and “Captain America”.  They were a good team at the ’06 World Cup, as the #2 set of broadcasters.  JP may be the best American soccer play-by-play guy.  It’s not surprising to me that he’s been a hockey broadcaster as well.  That’s a better sport for understanding the pace of play and knowing when to talk than O’Brien’s baseball experience.  He just tells you what’s happening, especially when it’s important, and who is doing it.  That’s all we want from a play-by-play guy.

Well, I also like some wit and intelligence but I, like a lot of American fans, may have been spoiled by the Brits we get on EPL telecasts.  I still recall the announcer who described one player having an off-day as “allegedly the right back,” for example.   But perhaps my standards were also set too high by a childhood listening to the legendary Vin Scully calling Dodgers games.

Harkes is much less of a provoker than Wynalda.  He’s an explainer, which is what the classic job of the color guy is.  Tell me why things are happening.  Why is my team having trouble generating offense?  Whose fault was it that a goal was scored on that set piece?  Which players are causing the other team problems?  Do you think that was a penalty?  Harkes can be good at this, although he sometimes struggles to articulate his explanations.  Wynalda is very articulate but can be too in love with getting a reaction.  We’ve all sat next to that guy at the bar, the one who enjoys being contrary.  Wynalda is a smart version of that — Harkes is just a guy who knows stuff but can’t always make his point.  Still, he’s a clear step up from Balboa.

Speaking of guys at the bar, my favorite “American” soccer color guy is Ray Hudson of Gol TV.  Ray is an enthusiast.  I’ve had a soft spot for him since he coached DC United, leaving a trail of legendary quotes in his wake.  He’s the guy at the bar who is so passionately engaged in the game he can’t help himself.  The Newcastle boy also has a special relationship with the English language.  Little wonder he’s inspired a fabulous blog, Hudsonia.  It helps that he and usual partner Phil Schoen (a decent play-by-play guy himself) have good chemistry.  I regularly laugh out loud when I watch a Hudson-called game.  Some Hudson gems:

Real Madrid are a whole different kettle of sharks.

He is like mercury. Not the planet, Kelly, the element. You cannot hold him, you cannot contain him. Quicksilver feet, again, by Messi. Mercurial, alright. And he is toxic for Espanyol’s defence. Look at this. Get out of your ‘Barca’-loungers and start applauding. That was brilliant. That is magnificent. Pure class delivered on a silver plate for Iniesta who was actually applauding as this ball comes to him. Look at this, Argentine class in a glass again. He’s up for FIFA World Player of the Year. If he doesn’t get it, I may start losing my faith in humanity.

Like a Jedi knight. No, better than that, a Templar knight. This is a flash of pure inspiration and let me tip my hat to the genesis of this goal, Ibarra. It’s Ibarra who plays it down the side, it gets pulled back for Lionel. Lionel only absolutely lights it up here. He lifts off it, flamethrowers it past poor Renny Vega, who does everything. It’s just as well Renny didn’t get a hand to that, because it would have taken it off his wrist …

Oh, there’s plenty more where those came from.  I like Harkes.  (I have to — my wife M. would kill me if I were critical of her favorite player of all-time.)  But I love Hudson.  If ESPN really wanted to turn people on to soccer, they’d give Ray some World Cup games in 2010.  Even Sports Illustrated likes the guy.  He may have a funky accent to our ears but enthusiasm will carry the day.  Just look at how American fans have loved John Madden over the years.

Posted in Television | 1 Comment »