International soccer is increasing its foothold on American TV. The World Cup drew large ratings. The UEFA Champions League Final is in its second year on broadcast television. Even mainstream columnists have taken notice. The sport expanding into the mainstream requires a balance, engaging the niche audience while informing neophytes with no domestic reference point. ESPN did this brilliantly at the World Cup. Covering the Champions League Final, FOX failed, dismally.
ESPN covered 64 matches over 31 days across three networks. It gave viewers rotating crews, high production values and informative, poignant commentary. FOX syndicated all the Champions League match content from Sky. The network produced extensive native coverage for one match, the Champions League Final, and the result was putrid.
Personnel selection was poor. Eric Wynalda was competent and experienced, but he was flanked by Curt Menefee, an NFL studio host without a working knowledge of scocer, and American goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who spoke with a strange accent and never bothered to look at the camera. His primary attribute seemed to be FOX not having to pay to fly him to London.
The production was even worse. FOX ignored the match itself. Squads weren’t delivered until just before kickoff. They didn’t “bury” the lede, Dimitar Berbatov not even making the bench for Manchester United. They didn’t discuss it. FOX ran a canned, moronic and cross-promotional Michael Strahan segment and took an exacting look into Gerard Pique’s relationship with Shakira. Viewers were neither entertained nor informed. They were left with sphincters clenched, bracing for the soccer equivalent of Scooter.
Had FOX put forth that effort for a Super Bowl or a World Series, there would have been beheadings. That’s the point. The key to handling soccer is to treat it like any other sport, if not with identical resources then with identical professionalism.
ESPN’s South Africa coverage was massively successful, because it cleaned up its act. Inexperienced soccer announcers such as Dave O’Brien? Gone. Sportscenter anchors snickering at soccer highlights and gleefully mispronouncing even marginally foreign sounding names? Gone. The WWL tailored the coverage to a casual audience, but it assumed that audience had active cerebral cortices.
Of course, this is FOX. The network’s one consistent trait through decades of involvement with news, sports and entertainment is flagrant pandering to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps, we should just hope ESPN repurchases the rights.
[Photo via Getty]