Before the World Cup started, I heard a lot of talk that Americans don't care about soccer. Since the games began, all I've heard is complaining from Americans that ESPN and ABC don't care about soccer. First, there was an online petition begging the networks not to use baseball announcer Dave O'Brien as their lead commentator. As soon as O'Brien opened his mouth, the whining crescendoed. Soccer aficionados cried that they preferred to watch the Spanish-language broadcasts. New York Times soccer blogger Jeff Z. Klein went so far as saying that ESPN's broadcasts have revealed a "crisis in American sportscasting."
Call it heresy, but from where I sit, O'Brien and his colleagues have done a creditable job during Germany 2006. (Full disclosure department: I've worked for ESPN in the past, including during the 2002 World Cup. I've also ripped the network more than a few times.) O'Brien has improved noticeably since the opening games. Yes, he started out overyapping, attempting to cram in everything he'd learned as he moved from the baseball diamond to the pitch. His first couple of games resembled the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympics, when reams of "fascinating" tidbits get dropped on the defenseless viewer. Since that shaky opening, however, O'Brien has slowed his word-per-minute rate. He's also been prepared, on top of shifts in tactics and momentum, and has a good sense for the tone of the occasion. And it doesn't hurt that he's got one of the best voices in the industry.
Of course, O'Brien has made some errors. He had the wrong goal scorer for Argentina against Germany, and didn't seem to know Portugal's star was Cristiano Ronaldo, not Christian. On the other hand, he has called around a dozen huge games to an audience with knives drawn, drooling at the chance to pick him apart for every stutter. Meanwhile, he gets no credit for helping to make the sport more accessible to the large number of casual fans sampling the World Cup. This was his charge, not to win over the hardcore minority who were going to watch the games regardless. A cynical maneuver by ESPN and ABC, perhaps, but that's football—it's the broadcasting equivalent of playing for a draw.
O'Brien didn't help his cause among the soccer cognoscenti by referring to them as a "petulant little clique." This country's soccer snobs—and I count myself among them—are a persnickety lot. They lament that most of the USA doesn't give a whit about the beautiful game but bridle at attempts to invite in nonloyalists by, say, explaining the meaning of a yellow card. Our little tribe is like the fans of an up-and-coming rock band. We want them to be successful, but when they break big, we resent the hordes of newbies who weren't cool enough to be there at the beginning. ESPN's biggest mistake here was underestimating the wrath of the soccer purist by choosing a baseball guy. O'Brien never got a fair hearing. Hell hath no fury like a footy supporter taken for granted.
But the numbers say plenty of people have tuned in. This ratifies rule No. 1 of television: No one watches (or doesn't watch) for the commentary. Here's rule No. 2: The quality of the game affects the quality of the commentary. O'Brien was excellent during the pulsating Germany-Italy match, which was decided in the dying seconds of overtime with a pair of dramatic goals. As the game got tense, he augmented the scene with context about the Italian match-fixing scandal. Otherwise, he let the match play out. On the other hand, O'Brien made a lot of enemies trying to flesh out the drab England-Paraguay match during the tournament's opening weekend. That's what you get for trying to keep people entertained.
Can I also call B.S. on the idea that English speakers are defecting to Univision because the ESPN broadcasts are so bad? If that's the case, how come all the people claiming to love Univision seem curiously fluent in the gaffes of ESPN's crews? It's true that Univision's Cup ratings have been higher than ESPN's, but that's reversed since Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina left the screen. The Germany-Italy match on July 4 got a 4.1 rating (close to 4.5 million households) on ESPN—twice the number the game pulled on Univision.
Besides, is Univision really all that great? I will grant that the network's audio feed—called "natsound" in the biz—is louder, giving a better feel of the passion in the stadium. The problem is that this requires the locutores to scream over the mix, making an already loud television experience deafening. This would be defensible if so much of the yelling wasn't about speculative shots from long range. Except for the fabled "GOOOOOOOLLLLL!!!!!!" screams, it's a lot of crying wolf—a trait a Yank broadcaster would get excoriated for. And the inventor of that classic call, Andres Cantor, isn't even on the scene, as he jumped to Telemundo years ago. Come on guys, get a new catchphrase!
Back to the Americans: I will not defend O'Brien's partner Marcelo Balboa, except tonsorially. He's a classic example of what Howard Cosell called the "jockocracy"—hired because he played the sport and can (occasionally) form complete sentences. Unless he wears his shin guards while calling the game, his experience as a player is worthless. John Harkes, though, has stood out. The former U.S. National Team stalwart has a discerning eye for the players, knows where they ply their club trade, and has been properly aggrieved at the relentless diving and thuggery on display. Harkes and JP Dellacamera, a veteran of ESPN soccercasts who knows the game and doesn't feel the need to talk for the sake of talking, probably should have been the lead team. The network's studio work has also been surprisingly strong. Eric Wynalda, who's never been afraid to voice strong opinions, is staging a breakout performance. If only there was somewhere for him to break to, post-Germany.
Meanwhile, let's recall these two words: Jack Edwards. ESPN's former lead broadcaster greeted surprising USA victories in 2002 with elocutions like, "The land of the free, the home of the brave is into the round of eight!" and, after the opening win over Portugal, "Mine eyes have seen the glory!" The only thing that prevented his execution at the hands of footy fans was the fact that the games were on at 4 a.m. here.
As for everyone who begged ESPN to use some British broadcasters—because they know the game, for fook's sake—be advised that the real thing are taking quite a lashing at home. Venerable BBC wordsmith John Motson has taken such a barracking that the Beeb has asked Web posters to refrain from using "abusive language." Perhaps football isn't the world's unifying passion; it's announcer criticism.