Posted by: Ethan Johnson | June 18, 2010

Revolution, Televised

Today I got turned on to an article titled “Why is WCup provoking feelings of hostility?” by Mike DiMauro. A snippet:

To increase the game’s popularity, it must be discussed by people who don’t know a thing about it.

I’m talking about mainstream national media outlets, whose bloggers, blatherers and bloviators wouldn’t know a “good ball” from “Lucille Ball.” And yet there is World Cup talk all over the newspapers, Internet and the airwaves now, with what in most places is grudging acknowledgment.

To which I ask: Why all the hostility?

Why indeed?

To carry this point a step further, I have been bemused to see ESPN trumpeting their World Cup coverage when in truth, the network is rather hostile to soccer. It’s hard to come off as credible when network personalities like Jim Rome dismiss the sport outright and declare that he will never, ever, be interested in soccer. That rubs off on the audience, and as ESPN is something of a gatekeeper and arbiter of Which Sports Matter, their indeed grudging acknowledgment of soccer’s apex does little to build interest in the sport, or establish the necessary credibility to draw fans back to the network for their soccer news.

I can’t entirely trash ESPN as the network has been good about covering women’s international soccer (so long as the USA is involved, such as the FIFA Women’s World Cup™), but it is not by accident that I am opting to watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ on Univision, in Spanish. Univision has put in the necessary effort to establish a true love of the sport and I completely buy in to say, Fernando Fiore’s excitement about the day’s matches, whoever they might involve.

Contrast this with ESPN Radio, which is simulcasting World Cup games locally only if they involve the USA or Mexico. Beyond that, no (local) coverage. In fact, the aforementioned hostility was very evident yesterday after the Mexico/France game, when the afternoon radio hosts put on an offended air that “their” listeners had to be inconvenienced by – gasp – the World Cup. One host encouraged “his” listeners to text “zulu” (his word) to the station if they spent “even 10 minutes” listening to “that game”. I responded by turning the radio off.

This morning featured USA/Slovenia, and after the nail-biting conclusion of the match one of the morning hosts, after chatting a bit with their designated “soccer analyst” (by phone) the host made no bones about turning the subject to what he’d rather be talking about: Kobe Bryant. (Note: This is the Dallas affiliate, and I don’t get it either.) “Our listeners are tired of having to hear about soccer,” he said. “They’ve had to put up with this for two hours as it is, and they want to hear about other sports, like basketball.”

No, what the morning host was really saying was, he was tired of soccer. He was in unfamiliar territory and wanted out, quickly. And once again, where ESPN Radio could have gained a loyal listener, I again turned off the radio.

Now: This may at best seem tangentially related to women’s athletics, the primary topic of this blog. And perhaps I am wanting an excuse to make mention of the World Cup here rather than some other web site. But the above article did reference women’s basketball and how the hostility to soccer is similar (but different, in my estimation) to the hostility toward women’s hoops. Perhaps so, but I’d like to note here that the shared issue is the hostility toward a network devoting air time to an unfamiliar or (arguably) unpopular sport. ESPN is the same network that devotes countless hours to that paragon of athletic achievement, poker. Where’s that vitriol?

Women’s athletics, generally speaking, often is fighting for its very existence. Soccer, especially at the global men’s level, is trying to achieve a greater level of acceptance in the US.

The thing is, the USA is full of people from somewhere else, like Paraguay, or Italy, or Germany, or Japan, or Korea… get the picture? They want to see the World Cup. And they’re going to flock to the network that lets them see the World Cup.

What the USA is not full of is women’s sports fans. And unlike other articles of late written by other men, I am not going to use that statement as a launch pad for all of the reasons why attention should not be paid to women’s sports or why the opportunity for women’s sports to flourish should not be provided.

The USA is not full of Baha’i, and yet their temples stand in towns across the country. The USA is not full of book readers, and yet we have libraries. The USA is not full of Ferrari owners, and yet there are dealerships.

Get the picture?

Now the thing about the USA, and the various people and towns within this country, is that one sport that I know people are playing is soccer. Take a drive around your town. Bet you find at least one soccer field. Depending on the size of your town or city, you might find a “soccer plex”. Your city might even have a soccer stadium.

Small wonder, then, that the people who have been playing, supporting, investing in, sponsoring, outfitting, and enjoying all of this hometown soccer might desire to see soccer on television.

Fox Sports Net tapped into this desire and created the Fox Soccer Channel.

ESPN by contrast devotes scant minutes – especially during non-World Cup years – to soccer coverage on their flagship “SportsCenter” program.

Small wonder, then, that sports writers and fans are wont to claim that “nobody” is interested in soccer.

Rather than dismiss all of this with a smirking, “the revolution will not be televised,” I’ll say that what is not being televised will bring about the revolution.



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