Are broadcasters to blame for Americans’ disconnect with soccer?
A popular Internet video uploaded by a marketing professional seeking his dream job claims to have unearthed the secret to making soccer one of the United States’ most-loved sports.
Christopher Medley created a stir in the tight-knit U.S. soccer community by insisting the sport could rival established favorites such as football, basketball and baseball if television commentators did a better job of educating their audience.
“In the big three sports, the television viewing experience prominently features an element that is woefully lacking in soccer,” Medley said. “I call it the mechanics of sport.”
In a 13-minute video he sent to every major North American soccer writer and commentator, Medley puts forward the notion that soccer could match its rivals in popularity in the United States if broadcasts featured more in-depth detail about the action.
Whereas soccer coverage is often vocal, excited and colorful, if often lacks the level of technical insight seen in NFL telecasts, where everything from the offensive formation to the throwing action of the quarterback is scrutinized in detail.
Medley says knowledge such as that creates a closer connection between the game and the information-hungry American audience than soccer, which he says relies on the passion and pace of the game to keep its viewers entertained.
Just how to broadcast and package soccer, the most international of all sports, in the United States has long created a serious headache for network executives.
Fox decided to show two English Premier League games on its main network ahead of the two most significant NFL games of the year, the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. The prelude to the Super Bowl, Chelsea against Manchester United, drew only a 0.8 rating despite being a thrilling 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Fox expert and former U.S. international Eric Wynalda acknowledges that the process of figuring out how to appeal most to American audiences is a long way from the finish. Wynalda, though, does have an explanation for why soccer matches do not, and cannot, contain the same level of deeper analysis.
“You have to remember that soccer is a 90-minute game with 90 minutes of action,” Wynalda told Yahoo! Sports. “In sports like American football that are constantly stopping, there is not only the opportunity to show replays all the time but a necessity to do it to fill all that time when nothing is happening.
“As great as it would be to spend 30 seconds to break down the intricacies of an outstanding move during a soccer game, you are rarely going to get the time because the game is still moving on.”
Part of the challenge for soccer to gain a greater foothold in American culture is to eradicate some of the negative preconceptions about the game – especially its low-scoring nature.
“Why is a scoreless draw considered dull while a pitchers’ duel or defensive slugfest is considered thrilling?” Medley asks. “If people are educated as to why a scenario is happening and the excellence behind it, it automatically becomes more interesting.”
“The key will be finding a balance,” said Alexi Lalas, who represented the United States at two World Cups and now works for ESPN in the studio. “The game is different here than overseas, where it is part of the culture and there is a natural understanding of soccer. You have a split audience here, with people who have a deep knowledge and understanding of the sport and those who are new to it but want to understand. Catering for both is a challenge but it is certainly possible.”
Medley, originally from Boulder Creek, Calif., and now living in Honolulu, is a marketing professional focusing on consumer behavior. He adapted his theories and findings to soccer, a game he fell in love with during his childhood and developed a greater affinity for during stints living in Costa Rica and Italy.
One of his aims was to highlight what he feels is a critical factor holding soccer back from attaining mainstream popularity. The other was to get his name out there in the hope of landing a soccer-related job.
“My dream, I realized, is to work in a marketing department tasked with getting more Americans consuming soccer,” he said. “So I reverse-engineered my experience learning about soccer, and used my findings to create a video which explores some ways in which learning about/interacting with the Big Three sports is made easier for American viewers, and how they could be applied to soccer.”
Medley’s findings are well-researched and have definite merit – and they have certainly generated discussion.
I first came to the United States to cover soccer five years ago, and the evolution of the sport and the way it is broadcast remains a strong point of interest to me.
Yet while a more engaged commentary experience may serve to boost interest, it is worth bearing in mind that television stations have a fine line to tread. Existing American soccer fans are notoriously fickle when it comes to how they like their coverage. A style that appears to replicate that used with NFL or baseball telecasts might not be appreciated by the hard-core followers.
Furthermore, while greater depth would surely appeal to some prospective new fans, others may be turned off by too much indulgence in the intricacies of a sport they already consider foreign and complicated. For others, the mysteries of the beautiful game might become more clear with greater depth to the commentary.
As is ever the case with soccer in the United States, a balance needs to be struck – and there may be no perfect answer. Yet the game can only benefit from those, like Medley, who care enough to research, develop and transmit their theories for improvement.
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