The Worldwide Leader in Soccer?

The best thing to come out of the success of the U.S. men's national soccer team is that, finally, soccer isn't a four-letter word in the American sports vernacular. American soccer is exciting and, most importantly, American soccer is competitive. People in America like to win, and on an international stage, something the United States has never done in men's soccer. Until now. Sure the U.S. didn't win the final of the Confederations Cup, but that squad showed us there can be no moral victories anymore. Losses will no longer be considered 'good results.' ↵

↵We've also established that soccer isn't boring like everyone told us our whole lives. And we've established that this incarnation of the U.S. men's national team can play with any country in the world. But can soccer really become a mainstream sport in America? Can soccer be more than the grass and dirt equivalent of gymnastics? Will Americans really care about soccer for more than one month every four years? ↵

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↵As Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it today, soccer's success might just depend on the media. ↵

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↵⇥A better indicator will be the number of newspapers - yes, I said newspapers - that send reporters and/or columnists to next year's World Cup, and what the TV ratings are at home. ↵
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↵Now, while we can debate the importance of newspapers going over to South Africa (the later start times will in fact help the deadlines for newspaper writers, but that's not the point), the fact remains that U.S. soccer's success -- and the success of all soccer in this country -- is tied to the Worldwide Leader. ↵

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↵ESPN has caught (and with the addition of La Liga and English Premier League matches coming soon, passed) Fox Soccer Channel as the go-to place for relevant soccer in America. Not only do ESPN and ABC have near-exclusive rights to any big USMNT match, but the Disney enterprise will be in charge of presenting the entire 2010 FIFA World Cup to America's growing soccer public. ↵

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↵So why did this particular line from Rece Davis at halftime of the U.S. match with Brazil rub me the wrong way? ↵

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↵⇥"In 348 days we will be back in South Africa for the start of the 2010 
World Cup." ↵
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↵That's right. Because ESPN wasn't in South Africa, so how will they be back? Sure, we watched matches from South Africa for the last few weeks, but if you heard John Harkes repeatedly gripe about the images from the World Feed, you'd know how frustrated the commentators have been calling games from a sound stage in Bristol and not from a press box in Johannesburg. ↵

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↵In fact, by all accounts the ESPN crews, including Harkes and JP Dellacamera, watch on TVs smaller than those we had when we were kids. Let me restate that clearly: The commentators for ESPN are watching the game on TVs smaller than the ones we have in our moms' basements. (Yep, went there.) We are in a better position to call the games than the announcers for ESPN. And that's not to say the announcers have done a poor job. Granted, Harkes is a bit of a homer (and for some reason hates Clint Dempsey), but the duo of he and Dellacamera do a solid job commentating the action. And ESPN has made a strong effort getting a crew of top-notch international soccer announcers, including Derek Rae, Adrian Healey and, yes, Tommy Smyth. ↵

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↵So why isn't ESPN spending the money to send a crew to these matches? Well for one, if every country in the world put in full video requests for FIFA matches, the entire crowd would be full of people holding cameras, not vuvuzelas. So we're stuck with the World Feed. But the commentators should still be on-site. If you're calling a game, you should be at the game. You should get a true feel for the crowd. You should get a sense for the weather and the conditions of the pitch. I'm sure they do their due diligence in researching both teams, and with the phone and Twitter and text messages the state-side commentators can have nearly full access to the squad, but it's not the same. ↵

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↵ESPN needs to figure out a way 2010 to send their top soccer people over to South Africa in 2010. If they can send people to cover the Olympics (even though their network didn't televise the Games), they can figure out a way to do this. Heck, if they can send a full crew with sideline reporter to Omaha for two weeks of college baseball, they can send a few people to the World Cup. ↵

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↵I understand it's difficult to have every match covered on television and expect the announcing crew to be able to broadcast each one. With 64 matches taking place in just a few weeks, it would take more announcers than CBS uses for March Madness for ESPN to properly cover everything. So here are a few suggestions. ↵

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↵Send your top announcing crew over at the start of the World Cup to cover all United States matches. We need to have someone at all the events, and who better than the men calling the matches on TV. ↵

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↵Send a sideline reporter to the U.S. matches to cover trends, interview families and other fans and provide human interest stories in between matches. We need to learn about these players like we learn about obscure Olympians every four years. ↵

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↵When the knockout round begins, there are only two matches per day. Send announcing crews -- or at the very least sideline reporters -- to every live match. We need to get a feel for the city, the teams and the emotion surrounding the event. ↵

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↵If the U.S. makes the knockout round, send everyone. Treat the U.S. matches like NFL playoff games. The pregame show should be live from outside the stadium and three hours long, not a 15-minute segment from inside the ESPN newsroom. ↵

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↵• Treat the World Cup Final, no matter what countries are in it, like it's bigger than the Super Bowl. Because it is bigger than the Super Bowl. Would a network have their announcing crew call the Super Bowl from a sound stage 3,000 miles away from the game? No, they would not. ↵

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↵Look, fans like a winner, so nothing ESPN does is going to change the fact that soccer's popularity in this country is ultimately directly related to the success of the men's national team. But ESPN also knows they can drive a number when they want to. ESPN made poker popular. ESPN spends as much time on college softball and baseball each spring as they do on the NBA. ESPN gets a number for women's basketball each March. To some extent, the Worldwide Leader decides what's popular. ↵

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↵So ESPN, if you've decided that soccer is going to be popular, prove it in 2010. ↵

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↵UPDATE: ESPN works fast, as I'm assuming all of these decisions were in response to the above suggestions. It seems, per an ESPN release just sent out, the World Wide Leader is taking the upcoming World Cup quite seriously, including month long studio coverage from South Africa. And the big guns are coming out as well. Chris Fowler, Bob Ley and Mike Tirico will all be involved in on-site coverage of the World Cup. ↵

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↵The ESPN coverage will include a nightly 30-minute World Cup Live show on ESPN and/or ESPN2, live pre-match and post-match shows as well as live halftime coverage all from South Africa and 14 localized editions of SportsCenter (I have no idea what this means, but it's in the release, so it's here as well). No word in the release about actual game coverage (my suggestions remain valid and timely!) so we'll have to wait and see if the studio shows in South Africa are pitching it back to a booth somewhere in the middle of Connecticut. ↵

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↵One more note on the release - it states all the ESPN studio coverage will be from site in South Africa, which is a pretty big country. So there still could be a chance that nobody from ESPN will actually attend any of the matches. ↵

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↵But for now, kudos to ESPN for taking this with the level of import it deserves. ↵

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↵(Note: For more on the state of United States men's soccer, please check out my in-depth conversation with Alexi Lalas for today's On the DL Podcast.) ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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