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Friday, June 25, 2010

What to learn from the World Cup

My brother is basically as into soccer...excuse me, football, as I am into track.  Athletics.  Whatever.  As he currently works from home rather than the office, and has some flexibility in his schedule, he's in football nirvana this month.  While I'm not terribly interested in the minutia of, say, Paraguay versus Slovakia, I have found the U.S. team's performance rather compelling.

Yesterday he sent a link to a column at about the World Cup, media, culture, and so forth.
For weeks a multi-front soccer culture war has been raging in the blogosphere. But one goal by the man who just staked a pretty good claim to the title of " greatest player in the history of U.S. soccer," Landon Donovan, should permanently change the terms of debate.
Roughly speaking, two overlapping propaganda wars have been raging on the Internet with respect to what soccer in the U.S. means.

The first is explicitly political. Social conservatives see the slow rise of soccer's popularity in the U.S. as unwanted proof of increasing multicultural diversity -- collateral damage from immigration, legal or illegal. With each new triumph by the U.S. team, the dream of American "exceptionalism" dies a little death. Glenn Beck doesn't even think Americans should watch the World Cup, lest they betray their patriotic duty. And while the left isn't as explicitly ridiculous on their side of this ledger, you do sometimes hear a whiff of the converse: that the growing signs of soccer prominence in the U.S. are supposed to signify a long-overdue dismantling of U.S. superpower ideological primacy. Since at least the end of World War II, the U.S. has exported its culture to the rest of the world -- soccer's rise is the revenge of the imperialized, or more, generously, signifies what one of my tweeps just called America's "return to the community of nations."

Then there's the parallel sports-fan-in-a-bar perennial. For many Americans, soccer just seems boring, an exercise in meaningless Brownian motion, as an acquaintance of mind recently observed. Scoring is minimal, strategy is inscrutable - heck, there isn't even time to grab a beer during a commercial! How can a zero-zero tie possibly be described as "thrilling?" More people watched college football's Outback Bowl than the Slovenia-U.S. match. In riposte, there are no shortage of soccer evangelists declaring that Americans just don't get the "beautiful game," the clear implication being that soccer-haters are boors who must be distracted by pinball excitement and fireworks to have any fun. One side says the game is stupid, the other side says its the fans who are dumb.
We, as track fans, would love to have this kind of back-and-forth. The real question is: how do we create it?

I could talk about how track & field is an international sport, and Real Americans don't care about the rest of the world.  Or that the two values most closely associated with track--individualism and diversity--are values that Americans profess to hold but don't at all.  But I don't really think the culture wars have a whole lot to do with soccer. Glenn Beck's followers are told to hate it, but they're the Walt Kowalskis of the USA; they hate everything.  Unabashed liberals like Keith Olbermann have no use for the World Cup either.  Like everything in the USA, culture wars are a diversion, and what really drives everything that happens is business.

In 2009, ESPN launched a channel in the UK.  They just happened to land the broadcast rights to the Premiere League, the single-most popular sports league on the planet.  They have invested heavily in soccer, and are willing to take a short-term loss on US broadcasts if they think they can build enough of a fan base to make it back and then some.  Also, there are two Fox Soccer Channels, run by foreign-owned News Corp, which owns the rights to all the other English pro leagues.  These two media conglomerations are the largest in the world, they both show soccer overseas, and they want to add to their fan base by going after the USA.

I'm not sure whether the mainstream media's current fascination with soccer mirrors a real uptick in broad-based interest, or if it's just the usual navel-gazing media echo chamber.  Entertainment (and sports fall into that category) always tries to guess what the people want and then give it to them.  But in this case, ESPN is taking a different approach.  They know what they want people to want, and they're giving it to them in mass quantities whether they like it or not.

And more and more people are liking it.  Because if you show people a sport and do it well and treat viewers like reasonably intelligent adults, people will get interested in the sport.  This is exactly how curling becomes a cult hit during every Winter Olympics.

Does the same approach work for track? We don't know because we've never tried it*.  We don't show people a track meet.  Ever.  Rather, we show them a lot of talking heads occasionally interrupted by a race.  Watch any meet coverage and count the number of races shown in the first 20 minutes; if the total is three, they're really moving things along.  We certainly don't show the viewers a track and field meet, ignoring half of the entire sport.  And the producers are terrified of showing more than four consecutive laps of any race, as if the viewers are narcoleptics.  (Note that VISA Championship Series meets on ESPN are time-buys paid for by USATF.)  Honestly, the Top Ten List dig that it "doesn't have all the heart-pounding action of a five-hour baseball game" is far more applicable to track broadcasts than to soccer broadcasts.
*exceptions: Big Ten Network, 1992 TripleCast

Rest assured that if ESPN got the rights to the next Olympics, and decided they needed to drive up interest in track & field, they would do it right.  They are professionals.  Track and field, by and large, is a sport run by political bodies and in the antiquated model of a non-profit.  Among the least-used phrases in our sport is "it's not personal, it's just business".  It is to our detriment.

1 comment: said...

Whoa. NBC are professionals too... aren't they?