ESPN’s Greatest Achievement?

Oh, is it ever easy to make fun of ESPN.  Whether it be the urban legend of You’re With Me Leather, virtually anything Stuart Scott says, the network’s hypersaturation of NFL coverage, its fairly lousy cliche-ridden NBA coverage (seriously, how does Tim Legler have a job) or a baseball announcer so ignorant he became a web sensation, ESPN has been a mixed bag since it’s charming mid 90s peak.  Really, it hasn’t been the same since Charley Steiner died (oh, wait …):

But don’t look now – but the Worldwide Leader the last month might have been spinning its greatest achievement – and it has been by a marked lack of the excess that has riddled so much of its other programming, from Sportscenter on down.  Of course I am talking about ESPN’s remarkable World Cup coverage.  The tournament, as is often the case, has provided drama on its own, but ESPN in its coverage has hit homeruns with several of the decisions they have made – and most notable, some of the things they chose NOT to do:

sticking with the pros: Instead of making the mistake they had made in the past of casting ESPN lifers (Bob Ley, Dave O’Brien) into play by play roles, they took the best of soccer today.  Ian Darke I had not heard of before, but he has been excellent – and Martin Tyler of course is a great of the field.  They have been terrific play by play men, not missing action, providing appropriate drama commiserate with what is going on.  They also supply some of their own strong opinions on diving and terrible calls.  I’d like to see the next non-Collinsworth NFL announcer who rips a blatantly incorrect call with the bluntness it warrants.  ESPN has put its pros in the studio, where Tirico, Fowler, Ley have all kept the studio shows going deftly.

not pandering to casual fans: The analysis has been solid and technical, with minimal amounts of “teaching” to a new soccer audience.  The network has bet that its viewers would figure it out.  The analysts have been roundly sound, and unsentimental – ripping stars where appropriate.  Was there a pro-American bias?  Absolutely, but it was never unfair.  John Harkes and Alexi Lalas have stood quite nicely next to the cavalcade of worldwide voices ESPN has used.  Among those Ruud Gullit, Steve McManaman and Roberto Martinez have been particularly excellent.  Ruud Gullit’s own refusal to believe what the Netherlands pull off was particularly charming.

a lack of hoo-haa: I’ll let Bill Simmons words carry this:

I love the Cup because it stripped away all the things about professional sports that I’ve come to despise. No sideline reporters. No JumboTron. No TV timeouts. No onslaught of replays after every half-decent play. No gimmicky team names like the “Heat” or the “Thunder.” (You know what the announcers call Germany? The Germans. I love this.) No announcers breathlessly overhyping everything or saying crazy things to get noticed. We don’t have to watch 82 mostly half-assed games to get to the playoffs. We don’t have 10 graphics on the screen at all times. We don’t have to sit there for four hours waiting for a winner because pitchers are taking 25 seconds to deliver a baseball.

The World Cup just bangs it out: Two cool national anthems, two 45-minute halves, a few minutes of extra time and usually we’re done. Everything flies by. Everything means something. It’s the single best sporting event we have by these four measures: efficiency, significance, historical context and truly meaningful/memorable/exciting moments. You know … as long as you like soccer.

I’ll even take it a step further.  Even if you don’t like soccer – the event supplies its own logic.  Frankly, considering how the games zip along it’s a good proposition.  Sure 1/3 of the games might stink, but that describes every sport – and we can suffer it pretty easily.

It is always a question as to whether soccer will make it in America.  I’d submit that it has – when an elite level international tournament is being shown like this.  ESPN has stepped up its coverage and dialed back the fuzzy feature pieces – it has bet that the soccer itself is enough.  That ESPN can do the World Cup without introductory pieces, or creating a need for pieces on Xavi’s family, shows that soccer is here.

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