North American Television Coverage of International Soccer

June 5th 2002 should be remembered as a milestone for American soccer. During the opening round of the World Cup in Korea/Japan, an unfavored USA took on the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ featuring Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, and Pedro Pauleta, and stunned them with three goals in the first half to which Portugal could only answer twice. As the full-time whistle blew for 3-2, it seemed that America could confidently take on the best European football had to offer.

Yet if you ask most Americans about this victory, even some seasoned footy fans, they will likely shrug at you in indifference. The reason might have something to do with ESPN’s coverage of the 2002 World Cup.

ESPN Drops the Ball

As many football purists are loathe to admit, the popular perception of a soccer match is often shaped by its representation on television. While 60,000 fans look on in the stadium, many millions more are at the mercy of two voices naming names from an isolated box hovering over the pitch, while camera crews provide intimately detailed angles of the on-field action revealing what live onlookers can only imagine. We might naively believe that the football beamed in to our homes is unsullied by its mode of presentation on TV, but to paraphrase fellow Canadian Marshall McCluhan “the medium is the football.”

USA 3, Portugal 2 should be proudly remembered in America, but instead, ESPN’s inept, uninformed and jingoistic coverage of the event alienated seasoned soccer fans even as it confused newcomers to the game. Ice hockey references were unnaturally grafted onto the action by Jack Edwards, current play-by-play announcer for the Boston Bruins, who shouted, “he shoots, SCORES!” when O’Brien knocked in the opening goal. By the time Brian McBride bagged USA’s third, Edwards, with no hint of irony, remarked in full voice, “Mine eyes have seen the glory!”

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.

Certainly the political climate, one year after 9/11 and in the midst of the early build-up to the second Iraq war, may have played a role in EPSN’s patriotic approach. America was on the path to increasing isolation from her international neighbours; a bit of jingoism at the world’s most followed sporting tournament was in keeping in the spirit of the moment, even as it countered ESPN’s stated goal to popularize the game itself.

ESPN camera

Getting it Right

Flash-forward six years to ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2008. Instead of Jack Edwards, we had two seasoned British commentators, Adrian Healey and Derek Rae, in addition to colour commentator Andy Gray, a voice familiar to viewers of Sky Sports. 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.

Many have remarked on the significance of this change from previous years, singling out ESPN’s radical decision to dedicate daily, live coverage to an all-European tournament. The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle called it nothing less than ‘revolutionary,’ and Robert Weintraub’s excellent summary forcefully concluded that ESPN’s coverage will be the first step in “…clearing out the morons who feel it necessary to rip what they don’t understand by exposing them to what is great about the sport.” But could network television coverage alone be enough to move the sport from the perceived left-wing elitist fringe and into the American mainstream? The answer might lie just north of the border.

Back in April 2007, much ballyhoo was made by liberal media outlets of Toronto FC’s perceived popularity among the city’s many first and second-generation immigrants. While this had a nice ring to it in Toronto’s multicultural capital, it had no basis in fact. In truth, the twenty and thirty-somethings that filled the stands at BMO Field had been brought up on a local diet of live English, Italian, German and Spanish league football available on Canadian basic cable via European feeds. Stations like Sportsnet, TSN and Telelatino broadcast live matches every Saturday and Sunday in the days before the Sports Channel Packages would force the viewer to make a conscious decision to add soccer to his or her dial. Additionally, no attempt was made to ‘package’ the games for a North American audience; it was understood the matchers were being watched by old-Europe ex-pats longing for a taste of ‘back home.’ Little did they know, younger viewers were busy discovering the unadorned European game for themselves.

If ESPN 1 were to pick up more regular European and South American league matches to show live on weekends, available without commercial interruption and presented by knowledgeable veterans of the game in the same vein as their coverage of Euro 2008, it might do more for the game in America than the NASL, the MLS, and the USA’s success in the next World Cup ever could. Attendances at Major League Soccer games might grow once idle channel flippers new to the game get a taste of the spectacle of club football on mainstream American television (ignoring for now its many flaws, commercial or otherwise).

Or not. We’ve heard this talk before, and it’s possible the spectre of the ‘American exception’ may always hang over the global game, but Americans already in love with soccer should at least thank John Skipper’s ESPN for finally giving it the television coverage it deserves.

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