ESPN ramped up their soccer coverage in 2009. In 2010, there is an opportunity to take it one step further.By Seth Vertelney
In 2009, ESPN made some significant inroads towards making soccer a more recognizable entity in the United States. Broadcasting live English Premier League and Spanish La Liga matches is no small feat and certainly a huge step in the right direction.
The additional presence of soccer on SportsCenter has not gone unnoticed as well. The sport's profile gets a boost whenever the network's flagship program features highlights from European matches and the odd goal or two on Top 10 (I could gripe about the seemingly random selection of matches shown and the anchors' collective failure to pronounce any names correctly, but for now, we'll leave that for another column).
However, seeing as it is now a new year - a World Cup year at that - and because I am greedy, I still want more. Furthermore, I don't think my request is too unrealistic, as I will underline below.
My idea is for ESPN or ESPN2 to have a weekly hour-long soccer highlight program featuring matches from the EPL and La Liga. This program would be a studio show in the mold of NFL Live or Baseball Tonight.
A three-person studio team would be ideal, featuring a host-type, a la Chris Fowler or Rece Davis, and two analysts- take your pick out of Alexi Lalas, Derek Rae, Shaka Hislop and Janusz Michalik. Also, change the locks at ESPN and give the new keys to everybody except Tommy Smyth.
The format would be simple and one viewers of Baseball Tonight and other shows of its ilk should be quite familiar with: show highlights from most of the weekend matches from the EPL and La Liga, with analysis and/or interviews from the most important matches.
Borrowing from SportsCenter, there can be a Top 10 plays of the week segment at the end of the program. Another feature I think would be smart to consider: a rising stars segment.
For a fan of any sport, it's imperative to know the names and faces of the players that grace their TV screen. Many American fans are getting their first exposure to the EPL and La Liga and therefore, probably aren't familiar with most of, if any, of the participants.
With the inclusion of the rising stars segment, an unfancied match like Wigan vs. Bolton suddenly becomes more appealing- instead of a clash between two of the league's worst teams, the viewer gets to see Wigan's Hugo Rodallega try to outfox Gary Cahill of the Bolton defense.
Many fans, especially neutrals, follow particular players rather than teams.
Give them some players to follow and suddenly, there is an interest in a game that might not be too appealing on the surface. Currently, a casual soccer fan's primary exposure to the sport are the highlight-reel goals seen on SportsCenter.
These are nice, of course, but if these fans watch full soccer matches expecting an abundance of bicycle kicks and 30-yard volleys into the top corner, they are certain to come away disappointed.
A full hour of match highlights will be able to spotlight the moments more hardcore soccer fans have come to appreciate: the cutting through-ball, the inch-perfect tackle, the towering header, the 50 yard driven cross-field pass. Learning to recognize and value these occurrences is crucial since they actually, you know, happen more than once in a great while.
It should also be mentioned that this highlight show would be a shrewd bit of cross-promotion for the Worldwide Leader.
A weekly program featuring EPL and La Liga highlights that also focuses on young talent in these leagues would undoubtedly generate more interest in the matches televised on the weekend. In addition - and perhaps most importantly - it would effectively serve as a sneak preview for the World Cup this summer- an event which happens to be the exclusive property of the ESPN family of networks.
This is about return on an investment. To secure the rights to these two leagues and the World Cup, Disney paid an exorbitant sum of money. The Mouse might as well use their resources already in place to boost viewership and interest in these competitions.
Another question: What else is on? There are 336 hours of broadcast time each week on ESPN and ESPN2.
Obviously, there is plenty of worthwhile programming on the two networks, but I’m not convinced there isn't space for an hour or two a week for this show.
On Monday this week, ESPN2 featured three hours of World Series of Poker “action” from 8-11 pm eastern time. On Thursday, in that same 8-11 slot, ESPN2 viewers will be treated to three hours of large men lifting heavy things- more commonly known as the World's Strongest Man Competition.
On the weekend, if the audience isn’t worn out by the non-stop action of the Bassmaster Elite Series and World of Saltwater Fishing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there is still time for three more hours of World's Strongest Man and two more hours of World Series of Poker.
I don't mean to belittle these “sports” (ok maybe I do), but seriously, there has to be a spot somewhere in this lineup to add an hour or two of soccer highlights. I’d certainly hope more people are going to watch highlights from the highest level of competition of the world's most popular sport than somebody going to the bait shop.
I understand there are people out there that like watching poker, fishing, and tire-lifting, but it’s not like they would have to eliminate this programming altogether- just reduce it. Sure, 2009 was great, but in 2010, ESPN needs to do more.
As consumers of soccer media in the United States, we should be expecting more.
With the biggest sporting event on the planet on the horizon, there is no better time to increase soccer’s profile and push it further towards the masses. If this show succeeds, it will strengthen ESPN’s other soccer properties, further encouraging more programming.
And if it fails….well, the World Scrabble Championships should be just around the corner.
Seth Vertelney is a regular contributor to Goal.com.
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