Soccer has become vastly more visible in the United States the past few years. This is indisputably the result of ESPN’s active promotion of the sport. The network forced staff to treat highlights professionally, brought in talented announcers such as Ian Darke, invested in the USMNT and club leagues and inserted the sport into the national sports discussion it dictates. The World Cup became a major television event as a consequence. The Gold Cup drew ratings on par with the Stanley Cup Final.
Without the World Cup, soccer, at least men’s soccer, on ESPN likely dies. This was John Skipper’s pet project and legacy. He just lost it. There’s no longer an incentive for ESPN to invest in the U.S. Men’s National Team. The only incentive for ESPN to invest in MLS was to promote said national team. Highlights should be drastically reduced on Sportscenter. For a significant segment of the casual sports audience, it likely ceases to exist. Soccer will be promoted through 2014, but without the impetus to build a future audience.
The 2010 World Cup on ESPN was one of the most professional production efforts in the history of sports on American television. Viewers were treated as intelligent consumers of information. The perfect balance was struck between being educational and being informative. Despite internet knives being sharpened, there were few if any complaints. Soccer fans forgot that Dave O’Brien happened. ESPN fine-tuned, waxed and detailed the car. FIFA just tossed the keys to FOX.
What will the World Cup look like on FOX? Picture every ham-fisted FOX sports production, but worse. Visions of Joe Buck flat-lining a World Cup winning goal may be overstated, but a World Cup is 64 matches over a month. We received a preview of a FOX World Cup in one match, during last season’s Champions League Final, and it was a disaster.
FOX imported the match content from its Sky affiliate in the UK, so the only thing the network really had to do was put out decent studio content. Curt Menefee, the NFL host, was called up for duty, as was former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel who mumbled in a strange accent and never looked directly at the camera. The crew ignored the match itself, focusing on cross-promotion with a lame Michael Strahan “football vs. soccer” segment and investigating Barcelona defender Gerard Pique’s relationship with Shakira. The target audience, for a soccer match, seemed to be lowest-rung TV viewers with no interest in soccer. FOX does run two full-time soccer channels on American TV. Said channels are known largely for cheap looking sets, for dumbed-down commentary and for hawking cheap, up-converted SD feeds as “high-definition.”
There are no shackles on FOX. It has seven years to raise its performance, though its record engenders little hope. Soccer has a beachhead. Passionate fans will watch it wherever it is shown, but, at this juncture, it’s hard to see ESPN losing the World Cup rights as anything but a significant step backward for exporting soccer to the mainstream sports culture.
[Photo via Getty]