Thursday, June 15, 2006

Time now for... ABC's Narrow World of Sports

A message to ABC and ESPN: Stop introducing me to international soccer. At least pretend you think I know something about it. Even though I don't, really.

The United States, of course, isn’t really a soccer-watching nation. The long stretches of the game where not much appears to happen, the concept of “injury time”, that vaguely arbitary amount of time the referee adds to the game clock at the end of each half, the noisemakers in the stands that sound like constipated cows – they’re all decidedly foreign to American audiences.

Even the most memorable US soccer moment in recent history – Brandi Chastain’s winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final came in a particularly American way – a penalty kick shootout, when you’re guaranteed something is going to happen. (And the American TV announcers need only to come up with “Goal!” or “No goal!” to accurately portray what’s happening on the screen.)

One gets the sense that the play-by-play guys are trying – really trying – to pull of a broadcast that sounds sophisticated and European. Or something. They clearly have a soccer game cadence in their heads when they’re announcing the action (“Mendez with it… Mendez… crosses to Kaviedez! Header! But it comes up wide…”), but one can almost see them straining to burst, Tourette’s-like, into a more American style of sports announcing.

Okay, our many hypothetical European readers are wondering, “What are you talking about? What’s the ‘American style’ of sports announcing?” (Glad you asked, hypothetical European Person...) Put succinctly, it’s the announcer’s inability to shut up when he (or she) has nothing useful to add. This is a problem for American soccer announcers, who haven’t been calling international games for the four years between World Cups. If they had, they’d be able to harken back to that Brazil-Uruguay qualifier from three years ago, or compare Ronaldhino’s performance this year to Ronaldo in 1998.

Instead, this is what an American soccer broadcast sounds like:

Play-by-play guy: Srna brings it up the far side for Croatia. Still with it… Srna… looking for Babic!… He crosses it! And Brazil are able to clear the ball back downfield and out of trouble…

Color commentator: it really looked like something was going to develop there…

[five-second pause, as the announcers strain for something useful to say]

P-B-P: Of course, Brazil is in South America, where most countries are Spanish-speaking. But interestingly, Brazilians speak Portuguese on their lovely beaches. The largest Brazilian cities are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the capital is Brasilia, which is away from the coast, in the Central-West part of the country.

Color commentator: I wonder what the people at the bars in Brasilia thought of that near-miss by Croatia…
As I said, I don’t really know anything about international soccer, so references to the 2003 Brazil-Uruguay match wouldn’t fall under the category of “common knowledge” for me. But maybe, just maybe, that’s how the sport could suck me in. There are years of soccer history out there about which I have no knowledge. It’s like becoming a fan of a TV show halfway through its 8th season. Even after the season ends, you have 7 ½ years’ worth of shows you’ve never seen – and they all fill in the blanks and give you a better understanding of the characters you’re seeing on the screen today. (Except, of course, for Law and Order, which has dropped more characters than an Arizona high school student.)

I got into cricket like that – I was in Australia in 1989, during the England-Australia tournament known as “The Ashes”. Cricket matches, conveniently, last for roughly nine hours, so it was possible to go to sleep at night watching a game (which was going on in England) on TV, and wake up to see the end of the same game. Some basic background information would have probably been useful (What, exactly, are they doing? Why the hell is it called “The Ashes”?), but being able to watch the spectacle as it was made it a much more exotic experience, and one that hooked me. At least for a month or two, until I went back to college and got into writing humorous history papers on Franklin Pierce.

Granted, I’m not the first person to float this concept. I did an interview this week with Sean Wilsey, co-editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, who got into soccer a few years ago, and promptly went out and bought the entire 1970 World Cup on video cassette, which he watched in real-time, not knowing how it would turn out. It was an experience, reminiscent for me, of having listened to a radio broadcast – in 1981 – of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series, and being completely elated by Pittsburg second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s series-winning home run. But I digress.

So I know it sounds counter-intuitive for a country where most TV viewers don’t know anything about soccer. But pretend I do. Or at least shut up for a few seconds.

[And now, this late note: The very entertaining World Cup play-by-play blog on the New York Times website invited readers to check in on ABC/ESPN's soccer announcing prowess during today's England-Trinidad and Tobago match, with entertaining results.]

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