Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Count me in (grudgingly) for World Cup as media mostly plays homer role without perspective for tournament

If it's an international sporting event, with the red, white and blue competing, it peaks my interest and it's probably worth watching.

That's the case with the World Cup this year, especially because it's a comparatively slow summer month with my baseball team struggling to remain in contention before the All-Star break. Plus, my football teams remain months away from kickoff and the World Cup -- to be clear, the U.S. team -- has some good story lines. Better yet, the match times work for my personal viewing schedule.

So, add me to the bandwagon and count me among the masses who will watch Sunday (6 p.m., ESPN) when the United States plays Portugal in a match that could produce a record-setting TV audience here in the United States.

Still, my sense is the hard-core soccer folks, the long-time fans, the international (and national) athletic intellgencia, do not want me watching. Or, if casual fans like me do tune in, they'd prefer us to just sit there. Silently.

Part of me feels that's fair because every knowledgeable fan despises the loudmouth who knows nothing but never fails to offer an opinion while watching a sporting event. So, point taken.

Unfortunately, the soccer folks take it to another level. They also bring misguided arrogance and pomposity that come from wherever it is they're sitting for the conversation.

Even worse, parts of the sports media are diving that mindset because they fail to bring a balanced approach to their work. Apparently nobody's listening to or watching what's happening. Or, if they are, they're just so caught up in boosterism that they miss the point.

They're missing the type of breathless hype that would be frowned upon by broadcasters working any other major sporting event. They're missing the overuse of cliches and jargon that would get an analyst fired working any other major sport. (A drinking game in which "wounded animal" as reference to Portugal prompted a drink would empty a lot of alcohol bottles this week.)

Plus, some media critics and those who support soccer have morphed into social scientists as World Cup fever has hit, citing the "maturation" of many U.S. fans as the reason for an increased soccer affinity. C'mon, it's just as much (and probably more) demographic changes and convenient start times that account for the increased interest. It's not as if sports fans have to possess higher sensibilities to process the intricacies of soccer compared to another sport. It's the "beautiful game," not the "most complicated" game.

None of what's happening has been an ESPN problem. Even in a lame duck year, broadcasting its last World Cup before Fox Sports takes over in four years, ESPN has been strong with its coverage. All the games and all the news have been there. Good, professional work from Bob Ley and folks in the on-site studio to most on-air talent for matches.

Some individual analysts have been over the top, though, especially in regard to the U.S. team, and that's been accepted as A-OK for what would typically be critics of the sports media.

In addition, the irony of who has not been overly critical is rich. All-time U.S. soccer standout Landon Donovan, cut from the team roster in the weeks before the tournament in a move that surprised some, has been balanced and informative during his segments on ESPN. If anyone had reason to be bitter, it's him. But he has not come across that way on TV. Or, if anyone could've been perceived as too connected to the team and thereby overly supportive, it was also Donovan. But he's been down the middle and solid with his work.

Likewise (and its a certainty the soccer know-it-alls would disagree, otherwise he'd have a TV assignment), Tommy Smyth did a strong job on ESPN Radio during the first U.S. match.

If some others could just bring the same embracing form of expertise to their work, the World Cup and U.S. soccer in general would be even more successful this summer and beyond.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

ESPN sets its own stage for success with World Cup

After years of planning and preparation, ESPN's coverage of the World Cup kicks off from Brazil this week and the network and its personnel are ready for the challenges that range from incomplete infrastructure to whatever news might break during the tournament.

No matter what happens -- and the tournament should provide some level of interest for casual and hard-core fans alike -- ESPN has played a big role in making the event more relevant to U.S. viewers. That's good for business, and good for the sport.

Without being self congratulatory, Jed Drake, ESPN's executive producer and senior vice president, pointed to the network as a reason for soccer's growth, specifically award-winning, critically acclaimed and well-watched coverage of the World Cup four years ago.

"By and large as a country, I think there was -- I've not used this term before -- but I think it was appropriate that there was some indifference to the World Cup. We changed that," Drake said.  "We fundamentally changed that in 2010. We did so through, I think, a production approach and marketing approach that made people understand how important this event is on the rest of the planet. This is a global event that people, I believe now, even in the United States, will tune into because of the sheer scope and magnitude of it."

The 31-day event begins Thursday, and ESPN's coverage of every match -- with East Coast-friendly start times of noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on most days -- includes 43 games on ESPN, 11 on ESPN2 and 10 on ABC.

In 2010, the 64 matches averaged just under 3.3 million viewers -- up 41 percent from 2006. The final between Spain and the Netherlands drew 15.5 million viewers, second only to the 1999 Women’s World Cup final as the most-watched soccer game in the United States. That women’s game famously featured the U.S. vs. China in what was eventually a shootout victory for the United States. It drew 17.9 million viewers.

The U.S. team begins play vs. Ghana at 6 p.m. Monday, and the team's other group matches are vs. Portugal (6 p.m., June 22) and Germany (Noon, June 26) -- both of which will air on ESPN.

Along with more viewers -- thanks to everything from changing U.S. demographics to heightened awareness -- ESPN's approach has changed and improved because of its comfort level with the sport.

"I remember covering the World Cup for ESPN way back i 1994, which was my first involvement with the company. Back then it was different," said Ian Darke, the World Cup's lead play-by-play voice. "Producers were asking me to explain what the offside law was, and I understood that at the time. But I think the sophistication of the American audience has grown, and I would almost regard it as an insult, really, to their intelligence now to be asked to explain the basics of the game."

With all those potential hurdles cleared, ESPN has done a better job of treating soccer more often than not as another major sport, as opposed on a once-every-four-year happening. The emergence of MLS has helped, as has many other factors. In the end, without the slightly educational approach, the result has been better sports on TV. Viewers get more stories and more reporting.

Also, ESPN added former U.S. team standout Landon Donovan to its already deep roster of analysts this week. Donovan was cut from the team, a move some experts have questioned and a storyline that will be part of whatever success the U.S. team does or does not enjoy in Brazil.

Along with that, and of more importance to the tournament overall if ESPN meets its commitment of covering things as a major sporting event, will be information about construction delays and protests because of Brazil's investment in the tournament as opposed to things such as infrastructure and social programs in the country. Protests of different size and levels of energy have been ongoing in the country for months.

"Inevitably and importantly we will also cover the news of the day as it warrants," Drake said. "We made that commitment to ourselves, we'll make it to our viewers. By extension, we'll be working even more closely this time around with ABC News."

Plus, the network knows its ratings and viewership success are not tied exclusively to how far the U.S. team progresses. A red, white and blue run to the knock-out round would help, but ESPN has elevated the tournament and the sport enough that viewers will follow the entire event regardless.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Belmont Stakes, NHL good but still short of NFL

A Triple Crown hopeful at the Belmont Stakes and a rescheduled hockey game in the Stanley Cup Finals carry NBC's hopes Saturday, and the network will do fine.

Heck, it'll do more than fine. It'll win the day -- or at least the late afternoon and early evening -- in terms of ratings and viewership.

Still, it seems like so much work. Network officials have to be counting down the 91 days until the NFL regular season begins.

It's all in the math. A contender for the Triple Crown at Belmont typically doubles ratings for the race, meaning maybe 16 million viewers. That was the case in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008 -- with the high point in recent years 21.4 million for Smarty Jones' failed attempt in 2004.

At the same time, Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals in primetime two days ago, drew 4.7 million viewers. With the horse racing lead in -- NBC moved Saturday's game from NBC Sports Network to NBC to take advantage of the two-sport doubleheader -- the hockey game might get a slight bump from the horse race. Maybe. It's really not clear how many of those casual horse racing fans have an affinity for hockey.

So the two events might draw 20-some million viewers -- and NBC would probably be thrilled.

Keep in mind, though, that "Sunday Night Football" averaged 21.7 million viewers last season. Each of the three broadcast networks pulled more than 18 million viewers for their regular season NFL schedules. Trailing NBC were Fox (21.2 million) and CBS (18.7). ESPN averaged 13.7 million for "Monday Night Football."

Once post-season play began (and hockey and horse racing are clearly in their postseasons at this point), NFL numbers jumped to more than 34 million for wild-card games and then escalated exponentially on the way to the 111 million viewers for the Super Bowl.

The NFL is just that popular and powerful.

That's why the NFL's announcement of its Super Bowl 50 logo (and the fact that the league would use the number 50 as opposed to the Roman numeral L for the game) earlier this week got the kind of attention the horse racing and the NHL would like to attract.

It's an enticing twinbill Saturday, TV sports worth watching, and NBC will do it well. It just contributes to the sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle message that there's the NFL on TV … and then there's everything else.

Monday, June 2, 2014

SEC show shapes up as a success

The core on-air roster and the first five campus stops for the SEC Network's traveling Saturday morning college football show were announced this past weekend, and the first-year network seems set to provide a top-notch program.

That's not really a surprise with ESPN's backing and muscle, but expect "SEC Nation" to immediately rank as one of the stronger studio shows in sports, with personalities that evoke a response and provide insights.

Poor Fox Sports 1 -- which, according to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated (LINK), is considering a Friday night move and personnel changes for its college football pre-game show -- fell another notch in the TV show hierarchy (and there's not much farther to go) simply because the SEC Network announced its plans. The "SEC Nation" lineup, with host Joe Tessitore and analysts Paul Finebaum, Tim Tebow and Marcus Spears, is that strong.

Tessitore brings proven skills and passion. He's a pro capable of directing studio traffic, although you have a sense "SEC Nation" might be a little less calm and paced differently than its big brother, "College GameDay," on ESPN. After Tessitore, and honestly before him in the minds of viewers and fans at the respective sites, the show boasts Finebaum (losing him hurts "GameDay") and Tebow. They'll have opinions and they'll generate reaction, which will make the show worth watching.

Really the only thing that can slightly hamper "SEC Nation" is its appropriate and necessary commitment to visiting all 14 campuses for shows. So, some weeks the show might not originate from the most important game in the conference that week. Of course, a satellite set and a heavy dose or reporters would provide an obvious solution to that situation.

The first five weeks of the season have been set. Here's the initial schedule of campus visits: Aug. 28, South Carolina; Aug. 30, Auburn; Sept. 6, Vanderbilt; Sept. 13, Florida; and Sept. 20, Alabama.