Soccer fans: ESPN World Cup coverage earns penalty
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The World Cup is generating record television audiences for soccer in the U.S. But some diehard fans think the coverage deserves a red card.
Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and ABC have been hit with complaints from soccer devotees that their telecasts are unsophisticated and mistake-ridden. The popular Web site Big Soccer has a thread titled "Pick your favorite insane thing said by the announcers so far."
A major gripe: ESPN selected an announcer, Dave O'Brien, who had never called a soccer game before this year to serve as the tournament's lead play-by-play man. Some English-speaking viewers have switched to Spanish-language Univision, which has out-rated ESPN and its sister cable network ESPN2 on average for the tournament in Germany.
Behind the scenes, U.S. soccer executives have complained to ESPN about the overuse of graphics and cut-away shots, which have interrupted the flow of matches. They say ESPN, which runs ABC's sports division, doesn't have enough staffers with soccer experience directing the tournament's 64 games from the company's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. The championship game, between Italy and the winner of today's France-Portugal semifinal, is Sunday in Berlin.
The conflict over the telecasts raises a question about soccer in America: With tens of millions of people playing, coaching or connected to the sport, does it still need to be dumbed down for U.S. viewers? Doug Logan, a former commissioner of Major League Soccer, the U.S. pro league, says the issue is "symptomatic of a growing industry that is getting better but isn't there yet," both on and off the field. The U.S. team was eliminated in the first round in Germany.
ESPN and ABC are employing a conventional American broadcasting style, with lots of chatter and information peripheral to the actual game, such as telling viewers that Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon cut a rap CD and that Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua. But such techniques may not be suited to soccer, in which the clock never stops and pauses in the action are sporadic.
"They're trying to give us all this information to show us how much they know," says Steven Cohen, who has bashed ESPN on his "World Soccer Daily" show on Sirius Satellite Radio. "All they're showing us is how much they don't know."
ESPN defends its approach. Jed Drake, executive producer of remote production for ESPN and ABC Sports, says the networks are trying to expand soccer's audience beyond a "small but maniacal" core. "There are a huge number of people watching the World Cup that don't watch soccer at any other time," he says. "We've got to play to that audience."
Mr. O'Brien says there is room in soccer's traditionally Spartan broadcasts for more storytelling. "There is a style I think Americans are used to -- the broadcaster being more involved, more informed," he says. But that style, he adds, "might jar your longtime soccer viewer."
Industry executives credit ESPN for providing the most extensive promotion and coverage of soccer ever in the U.S. Mr. Drake says the ratings back up ESPN's choices. Before the quarterfinals began last Thursday, ABC averaged 3.7 million viewers for 10 games. On cable, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 1.8 million and 1.1 million viewers, respectively, for the other 46 matches. Through Saturday, Univision Communications Inc. averaged 2.2 million viewers for its Spanish-language telecasts in the U.S.
The U.S.-Italy game on June 17 and Mexico-Argentina on June 24 each attracted nearly 10 million viewers in English and Spanish combined, the biggest U.S. soccer audiences ever. Overall, viewership has increased more than 100 percent on ABC and about 80 percent on ESPN and ESPN2 from the last World Cup in 2002 in Japan and South Korea. Most of those games were televised in the middle of the night or early morning in the U.S. Against 1998, when the tournament also was in Europe, the viewership is up about 60 percent.
Still, ESPN isn't drawing many more eyes for the World Cup than it does for a regular-season baseball game, which gets about 1.4 million viewers. In Germany, the host nation's first four World Cup games drew an average audience of 21.9 million people, according to Infront Sports & Media, which sells World Cup television rights for soccer's governing body, FIFA.
ESPN is hungry for new fans because it is upping its commitment to soccer. The network has agreed to pay $100 million for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, as well as the 2007 and 2011 Women's World Cups. Starting next year, ESPN is expected to pay about $7.5 million a year to continue showing the U.S. pro league, Major League Soccer.
But ESPN isn't footing the bill for this World Cup. In late 2001, after no U.S. networks showed serious interest, MLS's Soccer United Marketing division agreed to pay FIFA $40 million for the U.S. rights to the 2002 and 2006 tournaments. The company is paying nearly all production costs -- including a staff of about 75 in Munich -- and selling all national commercial ad time. ESPN and ABC get what amounts to free programming.
The relationship has created tension. Under the agreement, ESPN retained control over the on-air talent and editorial content of the telecasts. In planning meetings last year, ESPN and Soccer United Marketing executives agreed they wanted American voices leading coverage, according to people involved. That ruled out several U.S.-based announcers with English, Irish or Scottish accents who have called hundreds of European soccer matches for ESPN's international network.
The soccer executives believed lead play-by-play duties would go to ESPN veteran JP Dellacamera, who had called five World Cups. Instead, ESPN gave the job -- including all U.S. games and the championship final -- to Mr. O'Brien, who joined the network in 2002 and is best known as a Major League Baseball announcer. Mr. Dellacamera says he was disappointed but accepted the No. 2 play-by-play slot in Germany, the executives said.
The soccer executives opposed the appointment of Mr. O'Brien. Their argument: using an announcer unfamiliar with the sport might not help ratings but certainly could hurt them. "Would you ever put a guy who had never called a sport before ... in the World Series, the Super Bowl or the Olympics?" a senior U.S. soccer executive says. "Never."
Fans also protested. John Sheehan, a college English teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind., in March started an online petition, which has received nearly 5,000 signatures. "It doesn't show much respect for the fans who love the game," he says. Mr. Sheehan says he mailed the petition to ESPN but received no response. An ESPN spokesman said the network was aware of the petition but had no comment.
ESPN has irritated fans by, among other things, getting names wrong. Last weekend, ESPN announcers called Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo "Christian" and pronounced Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann's last name KLINES-min instead of KLINS-mahn. During an earlier game, an announcer referred to a team in Scotland as Glasgow United. The correct name is Rangers.
Most galling to aficionados has been extensive talk and visual interruptions during play, misuse of soccer terminology, and lack of insight into tactics and history. During a first-round match, ESPN nearly missed a goal by Mexico because a producer had cut to videotape of the U.S. team practicing.
Critiquing Saturday's England-Portugal quarterfinals match, blogger Michael Davies wrote -- on ESPN's Web site, no less -- that while he liked Mr. O'Brien and his partner, former U.S. player Marcelo Balboa, they "continuously missed the biggest stories of the game." Mr. Davies cited nine things he said experienced announcers would have raised. One of them: When England forward Wayne Rooney was ejected from the game after pushing Mr. Ronaldo, the announcers failed to note that the two players are teammates on Manchester United.
ESPN's straightforward approach is in part deliberate. Network executives have instructed announcers to avoid complex analysis, people involved in the production say. One industry executive says producers have told announcers in mid-game to explain soccer basics such as yellow and red cards, the penalty markers referees display to players.
Mr. O'Brien, who is 42 years old, has been a lightning rod for critics. A former play-by-play announcer for baseball's Florida Marlins and New York Mets, he called just eight soccer games before taking on 20 matches in a month in Germany. He says he prepared thoroughly, studying reams of material, visiting a European soccer network and attending matches in England, while continuing to call baseball and college basketball for ESPN.
Mr. O'Brien admits he's still learning the sport. As the World Cup has progressed, he says he has reduced the "volume of items" in his play-calling in favor of more "foot-to-foot action." He says a British friend passed on a message from a viewer: "I like O'Brien's voice, but can he just shut the blank up when the English fans are singing? I just want to hear 'God Save the Queen.'" During England's quarterfinals loss to Portugal last week, Mr. O'Brien did that.
First Published July 5, 2006 12:00 am