“FOX: We Report, You Decried,” or: What’s Up with Soccer Broadcasting in the US?

Eureka!

I’ve found it. My Archimedian revelation. Not a theory, mind you, but a word. The perfect word. Here it is: Fergalicious. Football is fergalicious.

Shakira 2010, Fergie 2014?

It took all of my four-and-a-half year affair with the sport to figure it out, but thanks to my friends at FOX, the search is over. The network’s in-your-face soundtrack for Saturday’s fixture encapsulates the body-crunching, nose-tackling action of the manliest sport on the planet. Twenty-two players sweating machismo on the field while sequined babes, real or imagined, wave pom-poms on the sidelines. All the while Fergie (no, not that one) effuses lyrics about just not getting enough. It’s the ultimate fix for an adrenaline junkie, so let’s kick up the bass, grab a Red Bull, and enjoy. ‘Are you ready for some football?!’

Fergalicious. No, really.

FOX’s latest attempt at unleashing soccer on a large-scale American audience, dumbed down like a remedial math equation, will receive as many plaudits as Disney’s latest Pirates reboot. Those of us who make a habit of following the game are left scratching our heads, wondering whether syndicated football coverage in the United States will ever produce content that’s less than laughable.  For the time being, soccer remains an oddity, too devious to fit within the mold of high octane American sports, but not eminent enough to receive its own treatment. Saturday’s spectacle was an unpleasant reminder of that. Between highlights of gap-toothed NFL stars explaining the ins-and-outs of soccer (Fact of the Day: putting the ball out of play results in a loss of possession, says Michael Strahan), viewers were treated to tired analysis by resident bozo Curt Menefee and USMNT legends Eric Wynalda and Brad Friedel. Our take-home from the pre-match analysis? The greatest footballers in the world are Lionel (diphthongized, as in ‘Lionel Ritchie,’ by Wynalda) Messi and Wayne Rooney. Thanks for letting us know.

Don't pretend you don't get the reference.

Like Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls, soccer is being transformed into something it’s not: a dolled-up, slack-jawed parody of itself. Discerning analysis is abandoned for eye-popping infographics and special effects. The fabled Champions League anthem gives way to FOX’s NFL Sunday theme. All that’s missing is John Madden and a telestrator. If an American audience is ever to appreciate the nuances of soccer, it cannot continue reducing the sumptuous sport to a cheap harlot. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all.

I’ve argued before that one of the reasons soccer doesn’t fit neatly into the American sports schema is its relative absence of hardline statistics. Consider this: The MVP runners-up for the three largest continental sports were Dwight Howard (NBA, 22.9 PPG, .593 FG%, 14.1 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 2.4 BPG), Drew Brees [1] (NFL, 34 TD, 11 INT, .706 COMP %, 4,388 YDS, 109.6 PR), and Albert Pujols [2] (MLB, .312 BA, 42 HR, 118 RBI, 115 R, 1.010 OPS). Compare that with this year’s Ballon d’Or runner-up, Andres Iniesta (8 goals, 13 assists). Two discreet (and rather unimpressive) numbers [3] and we speak of him as the second best player on the planet. What would a Sabermetrics nut say about that? The point is, while fans may point to Dwight’s points and boards, Drew’s completion percentage, or Albert’s power hitting numbers as indicators of success, there’s not always an easy way to break down the value of a soccer player. You’d be trying to quantify an unquantifiable sport.

“What makes Iniesta so great anyway?”
“Have you seen him play?”
“OK, but how do I know if he’s good or not?”

"Is it a, um, horse?"

And that doesn’t sit well with a viewership hungry for the amphetamine-injected numbers that define the Big 3 of baseball, basketball, and (American) football. Sure, services like Opta provide detailed statistical analyses, but only to a paying niche market. There’s also the Castrol Rankings, but it’s a system that relies on a rather subjective assessment of player performance. Overall, the appeal of soccer remains, for lack of a better word, abstract. No surprise, then, that the term ‘intangible’ gets thrown around to describe the sport. As in, he may not score many goals but his contributions are intangible. That’s a decidedly tough sell on this particular audience. If Americans crave the clean lines and simple geometry of a Mondrian, they may scoff at the knotty chaos of a Kandinsky.

It’s perhaps one reason that networks like FOX attempt to reconcile soccer’s effluvious style with the graphics-driven, pop-saturated chic of the NFL. If the game itself doesn’t appeal to viewers’ sensibilities, maybe the familiar Sunday afternoon grill-and-chill format can. But it’s a double-edged sword, insulting the die-hard fans and estranging the newcomers. Who would dare take it seriously?

For my money, there are three American commentators doing it right: Bob Ley of ESPN, and the GolTV partnership of Ray Hudson and Phil Schoen (okay, okay, Hudson is English but he’s lived here for thirty years). Spare me the USMNT alumni and their brain-numbingly prosaic observations (I’m looking at you, John Harkes). Keep your (American) football pundits who feel entitled to play the soccer connoisseur. Give me good old-fashioned, level-headed analysis with a splash of Hudsonian madness (yes, even the bits about Dolly Parton’s bosom). It may not appeal to a mass continental audience, but it’s always going to take more than Curt Menefee and the Black Eyed Peas to save soccer in America.

L to R: Bob Ley, Ray Hudson, Phil Schoen

Jim McKay, who revolutionized the art of broadcasting, was famous for describing the highs and lows of sports – “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” FOX’s decision to cut the bulk of Saturday’s post-game celebrations in favor of advertisements is a telling sign that the humanizing elements of athletic competition are no longer ideals of our esteemed networks [4] . For my part, I’ll be streaming next year’s final online, even if it’s not in HD on a big screen TV. Hey, if I’m lucky, maybe I can find a decent feed from Hungaria.

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[1] Runner-up in 2009. No runner-up in 2010, Brady won unanimously.
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[2] NL only. Runner-up in AL was Miguel Cabrera.
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[3] With Barcelona’s possession-driven style, the passes-per-game statistic is becoming more of a talking point, but whether it’s an important statistic remains contentious in our belovedly only-the-final-result-matters game.
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[4] I was visiting home in Chattanooga, TN when the UCL final aired. The celebrations were replaced by commercials for a local Saturday morning television show called “Golf Soup.”

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2 Responses to “FOX: We Report, You Decried,” or: What’s Up with Soccer Broadcasting in the US?

  1. arotberg says:

    i agree…harkes is awful. wynalda is slightly better.

    ray hudson/phil schoen are a dream team imo.

    overall though, i think you have to deal with the way soccer is presented on tv here. it’s just american to overblow pregame shows and try to fill way too much airtime with banal insights. it isn’t like FOX NFL Sunday is providing deep insights into the game. as with any sport, you have to make an effort to find what you like and avoid the rest….it’s not worth watching the pre-game show of anything imo.

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