Can you feel that electricity in the air? It can be only one thing: Gold Cup Fever. (Or not.)
The United States National Team wrapped up the group stage of the Gold Cup Tuesday night in East Hartford with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica. Outside of hardcore U.S. soccer fans, there’s been a big ‘if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?’ feel with the tournament. Maybe it’s difficult for Americans to get wrapped up in a tournament that features weak opposition like Belize and Cuba – which the U.S. dispatched by a combined 10- 2 scoreline in their first two Gold Cup matches.
It’s increasingly difficult to make the argument Americans don’t like soccer anymore as a reason why the tournament feels lightweight. Each of the last two Euros on ESPN generated TV eyeballs and “buzz.” If you seek out either the Copa America or the African Cup of Nations, you’ll end up entertained. Yet the regional tournament that’s home to America garners crickets, mostly.
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Is the lack of Gold Cup buzz due to the fact the games are televised on FOX rather than ESPN? Knock ESPN for its inane, debate-driven programming, but it still does a tremendous job covering live events. When something airs on ESPN, sports fans tend to pay attention. Rightly or wrongly, the Worldwide Leader is without peer at drumming up its own hype machine and focusing the conversation on it. (Okay, this might not apply to the X-Games.) You’re more likely to tune into something as insignificant as the World Cup of Softball when it’s on ESPN compared to any other cable sports channel, if only through muscle memory of working your remote. Ask yourself, wouldn’t there be more casual fans of professional cycling in America were the Tour de France aired on ESPN rather than OLN/Versus/NBC Sports Network?
This is perhaps the biggest challenge Fox Sports 1 faces when it launches in August, trying to win over the hearts and minds of sports fans. To date, NBC and CBS haven’t been able to puncture ESPN’s perch atop the cable sports food chain, granted much of this is due to programming or lack thereof. FOX, however, has a very solid array of holdings, including the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, UFC, various college conferences and a smattering of soccer. ESPN, perhaps nervous, already made a high-profile move to bring Keith Olbermann back to the network to coincide with the launch of FOX Sports 1.
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It’s too late to drum up importance for this particular Gold Cup even if FOX aired Saturday’s U.S. game against Cuba on the main broadcast network and used Gus Johnson. Many soccer fans didn’t even realize the game was airing there. The presentation, from the studio to camera work, feels like a step down in quality from what we’re used to seeing produced by ESPN on a regular basis, but that should improve over time.
Two summers from now, we’ll have a good indication on whether or not FOX can follow the ESPN mold of making its sports properties feel special. In 2015, FOX holds the rights to the women’s World Cup in Canada. Scoff if you like, but two years ago – buoyed in part by Alex Morgan’s (ahem) star power and a good United States team – ESPN treated the 2011 event in Germany with the significance of anything else it televises. It felt important with Bob Ley hosting a daily studio show on the ground in Germany. Had the dramatic final between the U.S. and Japan aired on some obscure cable channel rather than ESPN, would America have taken notice? Would Morgan still have shot into the spotlight and other players making the talk show circuit rounds?
That’s the power Worldwide Leader has built over the in the sports landscape in the last 30+ years and another tough hill for FOX and others to climb.
Whether or not FOX ,with the power of its cable channel, can turn lesser-tier events like this into something with broad cultural appeal remains to be seen. We know ESPN can spin almost anything it airs into gold. When it airs something, it gets sports fans talking about it one way or another. Can FOX follow suit? Or better yet, do we even want it to try to follow that model? [Photo via Getty]