The enlightened among us like learning lessons, but for many of us it just stinks, especially if anyone's watching. It's tough enough to acknowledge that you could stand to improve, and admitting that to a crowd only makes things worse. It's easier to change nothing and hope no one notices you came up short. Add a need to trade on your image to the mix, and the classic Emerson quote might as well be, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little brands."
With that in mind, what ESPN has done with this World Cup is particularly creditable. Humility presents a tall order for a company that bills itself as a worldwide leader. Yet not only did ESPN evolve over years of World Cup broadcasts, it did so just over the last few weeks by doing two things usually anathema to the organization. One, it got out of its own way, giving the brand and the coverage we associate with it a rest. Two, it took a property it had spent a lot of money on and, at a moment of maximum interest, wasn't afraid to bury it.
You probably know the big-picture story. In 2006, ESPN notoriously trotted out its own roster of underqualified announcers -- probably to save money and most likely to advance the brand. As a result, it saw serious soccer fans flocking to Univision to escape commentary that was embarrassingly out of its depth. For 2010, rather than hoping an additional four years' practice might have upped their commentators' game, ESPN hired a stable of quality international talent, most notably commentator Ian Darke.
At the start of this year's Cup, it looked like ESPN might have decided that they'd already conceded enough to the demands of international taste and were content to rest on their ESPNness. The good commentary crews were back, with new analysts added to the mix. The opening weekend broadcasts were attended by familiar ESPN puffery -- as if the network had these new toys that it couldn't wait to break and reshape into something more like everything else about the network.
There were the human interest packages of mostly filler and nearly zero socioeconomic context. Alexi Lalas staked out contrarian territory, went reliably negative about the USMNT and fell back on music metaphors. (All this was so regular that after a while one got the sense that he might have been responding to a producer's over-coaching. Like, "Don't be too high on the US -- that makes us look immature. Contrarian takes spark dialogue! And you're a music fan; use that as your 'in' with the audience to make this accessible.") Meanwhile, anchors Bob Ley and Mike Tirico fired quick questions at the non-native English-speaking analysts Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gilberto Silva et al that left them semi-stumbling.
These moments at the desk were the most frustrating of all, because they highlighted the disparity between what you could be hearing and what you got instead, often quite literally. ESPN's studio banter format works when you have two retired midwestern beef slabs arguing whether the Carolina Panthers need to be "smashmouth" or "more smashmouth," but Ballack and crew had trouble with it. Often you could see them translating in their heads on the fly, searching for the really apt and more complex English word, then settling for what they could think of fast enough. At the same time, Ley and Tirico asked them for big-picture narrative takes no one could possibly answer seriously. ("What are the entire French people thinking right now?")
Then, ESPN seemed to settle down. Replacing big-picture speculative narratives with actual game results and attempts to project tactical adjustments for the next game provided meat for the broadcast and put the analysts at ease. At the same time, Ley and Tirico appeared to slow the pace -- maybe tackling one fewer topic but letting each person have more time with the remaining ones. As the days went on, Ballack, Silva and especially van Nistelrooy blossomed and developed some real chemistry. Even Lalas, when not asked to be The America Whisperer, threw away the analogy crutches and got more comfortable poking fun at his own idiosyncrasies. Each had always had things to bring to the table; ESPN just seemed to step aside and make room for them.
But if all this evolved slowly and comfortably enough for many not to notice, the network's treatment of the Brazil-Germany semifinal stood out starkly. ESPN took a monumental product for which it had paid a monumental price and was confident enough to tear it to bits.
You don't often see an American sports broadcast disparage a team or a game, especially not on the biggest stages; it goes against the salesmanship part of sports production. Even when the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat in something like God Mode, announcers focused on the Spurs rather than dinging the Heat. That Dwyane Wade appeared to be playing in a defense-optional scheme or was just too damn tired -- and too damn underserved by the bench players assembled by his GM -- mostly got passed over in favor of accentuating the positive about San Antonio and coach Gregg Popovich.
Even if the beatdown is unmistakable, commentators and producers find a way to focus on something else. Think of Brett Favre gunslinging a few laser interceptions and instead hearing about him just being a kid out there and how great it was to see him still playing when both his age and passer rating were 67. Or think of Brent Musberger taking a break from trying to sell interest in Alabama's ruthless destruction of Notre Dame to instead talk about AJ McCarron's girlfriend's appearance and make everyone want to issue ABC a restraining order.
Instead, consider what commentators Darke and Steve McManaman had to say during the Brazil-Germany semifinal without a producer cutting in to tell them to focus on the crying Brazil fans, the German bench or just to start spinning like crazy:
McMANAMAN: Is anybody going to close down? Is anybody going to make it hard to beat? Are they going to get organized, Brazil? Because right now it looks like 11 players are just running round the field with no idea.
DARKE: It's just resembling a shooting gallery.
DARKE: And Brazil are just being played off the park.
McMANAMAN: This is the worst I've seen Brazil play to start a game.
DARKE: Defensively a shambles here.
DARKE: Five-Nil! This is utterly beyond belief! Where is this goal-scoring going to end?
McMANAMAN: Whenever they start defending... You're Four-Nil down, go be aggressive and kick somebody, go do something.
DARKE: Well if this was boxing, the referee would be stopping it to save Brazil from further punishment.
McMANAMAN: It looks as if they've never played with each other before.
DARKE: It's almost as if Brazil have stopped playing... Germany on their way, no question about it, to the World Cup final.
McMANAMAN: They need halftime. They need to put about five more players on and hope they can get away with 16 against 11. They need something because this is embarrassing.
McMANAMAN: Who is marking anybody in this game? Because I have no idea.
DARKE: Certainly not in a yellow shirt anyway.
McMANAMAN: Oh, they'll score again, Germany, won't they? There's 20 minutes left.... Germany'll score again if they want. It looks as if Brazil have got nine men on the field.
DARKE: Just to recap, you are watching Brazil's worst defeat for 94 years.
McMANAMAN: What I will say, I'll give a lot of credit to the crowd, because they're still here.
DARKE: Well, I think it's a sort of morbid fascination.
DARKE: A seventh! An UTTER humiliation for Brazil just got worse!
McMANAMAN: ...Talk about just giving up. You might as well just finish the game and walk off if you're not going to run around.
DARKE: I think these players frankly want to get off this pitch and go into a tunnel that led to Tristan de Cunha or somewhere.
DARKE: The Brazil fans are joining in with him. They're starting to applaud the Germans. What else can they do, really?
McMANAMAN: ...It's been a very good German performance, but, Ian, you can't underestimate how bad Brazil have been today. Honestly, it's like amateur hour watching them.... Their attitude has just been appalling. I know I keep saying appalling because I'm running out of words.
The transcript doesn't even do it justice, really. Darke and Macca called the game over before halftime, leaving the second half to turn into a more sophisticated English version of those late-innings where Rick Sutcliffe is clearly loaded or the Mets commentators are so tired of the absolute turkey they're watching and instead start arguing about whether those three-for-one sales at Jos. A. Bank are any kind of deal. Macca's scouser accent kept getting more baffled and higher pitched, while Darke vacillated between mordant critique and polite revulsion.
This performance alone would have been remarkable: ESPN, of all networks, letting two quadrennial interlopers tell you that the big expensive event you were watching had turned into a relentless machine steamrolling a disaster. But ESPN did them one further. At halftime, a power outage forced Tirico and Lalas to broadcast from a booth, and not only did they ignore the opportunity for wakka-wakka sports studio slapstick, but they doubled down on what a slaughter the first half had been.
ESPN didn't stop there. In the postgame, they almost immediately threw it to Silva, who summed it up as "like a professional team and an amateur team. It looks like that." Ballack and the rest of the crew echoed the poor Brazilian footballer as tactfully as possible, going deeper into the defensive miscommunication. You could not escape the consensus that you had just watched something uniquely memorable yet undeniably terrible. And, as if that weren't enough, ESPN hammered it home again the next day on World Cup Tonight, bringing Darke in to the panel show midway through the broadcast to remind you that you spent the night before watching a trainwreck.
Maybe ignoble reasons lie behind this. Most American broadcasts don't devolve into "this team sure does suck tonight, Moe. They just plain suck. They are the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked" because some damn wiener player is listening. It's tough to tell the truth about an abysmal performance if you rely on year-round access to the performers to fill out hours of SportsCenter. Maybe the fact that ESPN's on-air talent can essentially ignore these players until the Olympics frees them to be honest in a way they can't about another Tom Brady postseason exit.
Regardless of motive, however, ESPN deserves credit for their evolution. The leaps they made from 2006 to now are obvious. But, after a quintessentially overproduced and underthinking opening weekend, they set down to work. The studio analysts got comfortable and started to jell, and breakdowns crowded out forced big-picture narrative more and more. ESPN got out of its own way, and it let soccer take pride of place -- so much so that, on the second-biggest stage of the tournament, they let the game and the people who know it best dictate the story. Germany were magnificent, Brazil were a catastrophe, and the game itself was indelibly horrible. And if people turned off the television at the sight of the truth, so be it.
There will always be shortcomings. Tirico could be replaced by someone fluent in the game. Pregame shows could go longer, give the analysts even more room to breathe and maybe harvest some of the insights reliably delivered by ESPN's soccer writers. We could even acknowledge that this event doesn't take place outside a sociopolitical vacuum -- or at least with video segments more rigorous than what looks like Wright Thompson narrating an ad for a craft bourbon distillery run by Marlboro Men.
That aside, though, we go into the final weekend of World Cup coverage with ESPN doing probably the best it can and clearly doing the best job it has so far. And it's hard to escape the notion that, come 2018, even if Fox tells Gus Johnson to stop screaming and doesn't fill the studio with the soccer equivalent of Terry, Howie, Jimmy, Guffaw, Backslap, Carfart, Teabag and Dr. Giggles -- even if they really hit it out of the park -- they probably won't measure up. ESPN earned the chance to be missed next World Cup by not settling for just being ESPN. That's a hell of a change for a network that could have refused to learn anything at all.