Those who despair about what many believe ESPN has become -- “relentless bulls---, 100 percent authentic, 24 hours a day” as Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs memorably put it -- can take some solace is knowing that the network can, in fact, change. And I don’t mean change through outsourcing, like with the “30 for 30” documentaries and everyone’s tacit agreement to pretend Grantland is somehow owned by somebody else. I mean in the actual coverage of live mainstream events: Sometimes they actually hear us.
In 2006, ESPN received among the worst press it had ever received -- this was about four months before Deadspin launched -- during the World Cup in Germany. In an attempt to “crossover” the sport of soccer, the network used a lot of its usual tricks during coverage (obvious statistical graphics, garish in-game advertising displays, explaining soccer only in relation to other, more “popular” American sports, “human interest” stories that distract from the actual game we’re trying to watch) and, most notoriously, hired Dave O’Brien as its lead broadcaster. O’Brien openly admitted he had never followed soccer until just a few months earlier -- his experience with it was limited to briefly dabbling in it in high school and his 11-year-old daughter’s youth league -- and this was something he took considerable pride in. O’Brien’s view was that if you didn’t like his broadcasting, it’s because you liked soccer too much.
“There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited. … And they’re not really the audience we want to reach anyway,” O’Brien told USA TODAY back then. “Soccer hasn’t been presented well to guys like me who played it in high school and are raising daughters on travel teams. Should I spend even 15 seconds describing what the Bundesliga is? Should I explain what FIFA is? My 11-year-old daughter doesn’t know. If I do that, the clique will say I don’t know soccer. But we’re putting on a TV product, not a soccer clinic.”
This is ESPN at its worst. It’s not just the notion that every sporting event must be dumbed down to the point that only 11-year-old girls who don’t follow sports at all can understand (the “Today” show-ification of sports). It’s the sneering, dismissive, you true fans don’t matter, all that matters is RATINGS of it all. As ESPN has grown so massive in the last decade, the goal of the network has not been to cater to its core audience, but to simply grow itself, regardless of product. The aim is not to inform or to entertain; the goal is to self-sustain. This does not make ESPN evil or sinister or anything like that; it just makes it like any other corporation, one in which what the most loyal customers want is not just irrelevant to the bottom line, but actually counterproductive to it. You see this most vividly today on the broadcast of “Monday Night Football” -- the network’s most high-profile program, and therefore most important -- whose coverage most often resembles a Bleacher Report headline with explanation points and occasional telestration.
But ESPN can change, and 2010 proves it. The network’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was universally praised, and it’s because the network learned the lessons of 2006. Gone was O’Brien; gone were the constant analogies to “American” sports; gone were the “this defender has overcome poverty and having six toes on his left foot and just three on his right” soft-focus pieces. The focus was entirely on the sport itself, covered by men and women who understood the game, delivered no-frills to the game’s most devoted fans. People loved it, not just as soccer fans, but fans of sports in general. ESPN was actually covering a sporting event as a sporting event, not as a cavalcade of synergistic branding opportunities. And, not for nothing (and not that this should necessarily be the end-all, be-all), the ratings were through the roof.
Watching the 2010 World Cup on ESPN gave you hope not only for soccer in this country, but in fact ESPN itself. Maybe it would embrace the love it received for its coverage and start to expand it to other sports, tell us the story simply as it is, unadorned with solipsistic incantations, free of obsessiveness over invented storylines to “drive mainstream narratives.” Maybe it would learn from its 2010 World Cup successes.
This weekend, the story broke that NBC had outbid Fox and ESPN to carry English Premier League matches for the next three years. This was a reminder that last year, Fox had outbid ESPN to show the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Which means that 2014 will be the last year that ESPN shows the World Cup, the one sporting event it shows the way it should be shown.
It’s possible that Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose, the new additions on ESPN’s NBA studio crew, will make that program watchable in the same way TNT’s “Inside the NBA” is. (That’s obviously the goal.) But if not, watching the 2014 World Cup is gonna be like reading “Flowers for Algernon.” I passed your floor on the way up, and now I'm passing it on the way down. I don't think I'll be taking this elevator again.
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I’m pretty optimistic about Simmons and Rose on the NBA broadcast, all told, as long as the mustache doesn’t return. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.