Why TV's World Cup Coverage Runneth Under

Disclaimer: Unlike most red-blooded American males, I am not that into sports, even the “American” ones. But every once in a while, an event comes along that breaks through the -- pardon my expression -- “inside baseball” aspects of a sport and connects with mainstream viewers like me. It becomes not just a sporting event, but a television event that we can all participate in and even root for. The World Cup has been one of those -- especially this year.

It could be that I first started watching the 2014 games while abroad covering the Lions Festival in Cannes. Let me tell you, if you really want to get into a sport, try watching it in a crowded bar with the home country team competing for a chance that comes only once every four years to prove they’re the best in the world at something most of the rest of the world cares about. I don’t think it hurt that so many people from all around the world -- the Lions’ international delegates -- were also there in Cannes simultaneously rooting for their respective home teams, even the U.S.



When I returned to the U.S. I was surprised to feel the fervor, energy and interest surrounding the World Cup was almost as high at home. I can think of many reasons why this World Cup is a bigger U.S. television event than any before. One is that the American population is simply more international than it was four years ago. Another is that the aging of our indigenous population means a greater share of Americans grew up playing soccer, and understand what it feels like to actually play it, not to mention what’s going on.

I will probably never know what it feels like to play a soccer tournament, but that hasn’t stopped me from becoming a fan of other big TV sports events -- say the Olympics -- because I at least understood what was going on. And for a sport that seems as simple as soccer does -- hey, it’s just a bunch of guys trying to kick a ball into each other’s net -- the biggest impediment to getting me to be a hardcore soccer fan is that it’s really, really confusing to me. So here’s today’s TV Blog fill-in bit of criticism: Why doesn’t television do a better job of explaining how the sport is played? Actually, I can only speak for ESPN’s coverage here, because I didn’t really understand what the European announcers were saying, but I think it has been missing some really good teachable moments that would encourage more casual viewers to become longer-term soccer fans.

And I’m not just talking about subtle nuances of the game, but some basic things that would help a viewer follow the game. I mean, I can’t even figure out how long the games are. Is it just me or is the method FIFA uses to inform fans about the time left to play really confusing? I get the sense that they add time at the end of the game for time-outs related to penalties and injuries, but it’s not always clear how much game time is actually left.

A little bit of instruction on what constitutes good game play or strategy wouldn’t hurt. I understand that someone actually kicking or head-butting the ball into the opponents’ net is a good thing, but what about all the other action moving the ball up and down the field? Or how about the players who are moving it? With the exception of Brazil’s Neymar da Silva Santos or Uruguay's Luis Suarez, I got very little sense of who any of the players are, and I was only aware of the second guy because of the news coverage that erupted when he bit another player.

I understand that much of the basics I would need to understand to enjoy the sport better would only slow the game down for established fans, but I’m thinking that ESPN, with all its multiple channels, could televise a version for novices like me.

16 comments about "Why TV's World Cup Coverage Runneth Under".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, July 8, 2014 at 5:29 p.m.

    The most simple and available method to get new and casual fans into the World Cup, and into soccer itself, would be to include lots more close-up shots of the players handling the ball. This could be done with all matches played in the USA, and some international matches that have numerous TV camera pool feeds that American TV outlets could choose from. Having closer views would go a long way towards explaining the skill required. Besides that, having a third voice in the booth, in addition to the main commentator and color commentator, who could drop-in with short, basic sound-bites would help, too. In the meantime, the easiest way to understand the game is to take your cues from the crowd noise and the rise in the commentator's voices. That's the time to pay very close attention to the position and movement of the players, since it signals developing play, or a set-piece (a planned multi-player maneuver). Take your time. Watch lots of matches, preferably in the company of rabid fans, and it will all make sense in no time at all.

  2. Chuck Lantz from, network, July 8, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.

    Addendum to my previous post: Soccer fans generally love to explain the game to newcomers, with one major proviso; ... if you find yourself watching any match with Brazilian fans, whether Brazil is playing or not, do not, under ANY circumstances, mention or in any way acknowledge the 2014 World Cup semi-final match between Brazil and Germany. In fact, pretend you never heard of it.

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 8, 2014 at 5:48 p.m.

    Dear Mr. Mandese,
    It's halftime in Brazil.
    Germany is winning 5-0.
    Admittedly, I coached for ten years and before that played for five as a child.
    The appeal of the game is not a mystery to me, though finding the right words to explain the attraction and improve your experience would be a proper challenge that I'll take under advisement.
    Though I understand the "think-feel-do" of the game (See the Olympic Programming Philosophy I retrieved for NBC Sports as far back as 1992), the connection soccer fans of all kinds have is basically visceral.
    As world history is about to be made today, I shall sign-off wondering what those from countries outside the USA make of our National Pastime, even in World Series Season when viewed on TV.
    For now, even ESPN's TV version of the FIFA World Cup scores a winning gooooooooooooooal match after match.
    ESPN, you've done ever so well!
    We're talking about the World's Game right now, aren't we?
    The problem just may be that our soccer cup actually runneth over.
    With respect,
    Nicholas P. Schiavone

  4. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 8, 2014 at 6:09 p.m.

    FIFA Semi-Final 2014 World Cup
    Germany v. Brasil.
    Final score: 7 to 1.
    Sports history has been made.
    Perhaps Baseball fans can better appreciate the World's Game tonight on TV, Radio, and in Print.

  5. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 8, 2014 at 6:33 p.m.

    Maureeen Dowd explains a picture bigger than sports or TV:
    "AMERICA’S infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance."
    Please read:

  6. Maarten Albarda from Flock Associates (USA), July 8, 2014 at 6:35 p.m.

    Dear Joe: you know I love you dearly. But this post is so full of stereotypes: "I don't understand the game", "I can't understand the British accent", "Why doesn't American TV explain the game better?" Truly, soccer... wait, let's agree from now on that we, too, call it football, as opposed to American Football. So: football is truly such a simple game that even YOU should be able to understand it. There are no confusing time-outs, no endless players subbing for each other, no 15 coaches for one team with headsets doing things with clipboards on the sidelines, no confusing lines across the pitch with yards painted on them (what is a yard anyway - the globe is metric!), no organs playing for the crowds (really, 1930 is long behind us!), no sexist distractions from the game in the form of cheerleaders (really, the 70's are long behind us, too!). Soccer is, was and always will be the beautiful game. And a very large and growing number of Americans are part of it, which makes me very happy. Now allow me to go back and worry about what Argentina might do to my home country The Netherlands tomorrow in the other semi-final. Or, if by another streak of Louis van Gaal coaching genius we make it into the final, let me SERIOUSLY worry about being trounced by Germany on Sunday. Much love, Maarten.

  7. Joe Mandese from MediaPost Inc., July 8, 2014 at 7:37 p.m.

    Hey, I prefaced it by saying I am not that into sports of any kind, but that the World Cup is an event that transcends simple sports culture. I just think it would help the sport if TV coverage could make it a little more accessible to people like me. Kind of how it does it with the Olympics.

  8. Chuck Lantz from, network, July 8, 2014 at 9:09 p.m.

    Maarten AND Joe make some very valid points. Football, soccer, footie or futbol, whatever you want to call it, is a much more simple game than any of the more popular American professional sports. One problem with expanding the audience in the USA is that we can get excited about the WC every four years, but until the next one, we are generally stuck with MLS, which is many levels below world-class play, like it or not. Until international league soccer catches on here in America, if ever, the quality gap is just too wide to sustain anything approaching the brief fervor seen during the WC. We in the USA are stuck in futbol limbo, at least for the foreseeable future.

  9. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 8, 2014 at 9:29 p.m.

    Dear Mr. Mandese,
    I shall take your Olympics reference as a compliment --
    and it encapsulates your initial point well.
    Olympic TV coverage on NBC was beautiful -- by design. The credit belongs to Ebersol, Schiavone and many artistically creative colleagues in NBC Sports.
    Just review David Remnick's assessment of the Atlanta Games ('96) in 'The New Yorker.'
    Nonetheless, in a complex, complicated and chaotic world simplicity is beauty AND soccer (real football) is THE Beautiful Game. (Portuguese: o jogo bonito. The exact origins of the term are disputed. Brazilian footballer Pelé gets some credit because of the title of his book. As does the presenter Stuart Hall, who claimed to have originated it in 1958. Hall admired Peter Doherty when he went to see Manchester City play at Maine Road and used the term "The Beautiful Game" to describe Doherty's style when playing. Consequently, Hall used the term "The Beautiful Game" in his commentary career later on in life which popularised the phrase.)
    Onwards and Upwards!
    Respectfully submitted,
    Nicholas P. Schiavone

  10. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 9, 2014 at noon

    (at least Red Sox Fans) ...
    Associated Press, 9 July 2014:
    'It was Boston's fourth straight loss and seventh in eight games.'

  11. Joe Mandese from MediaPost Inc., July 9, 2014 at 12:03 p.m.

    @Mr. Schiavone: Finally, something to unite the world, sports-related masochism.

  12. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 9, 2014 at 1:24 p.m.

    MediaPost Publications could add Sports Medicine & Global Psychology to its list of well-covered specialties.
    IMPRESSIVE, as usual.
    Thank you!

  13. Barbara Lippert from, July 9, 2014 at 5:58 p.m.

    Here here.

  14. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 10, 2014 at 11:34 a.m.

    10 July 2014:
    "Red Sox Rally To Snap Skid, Beat White Sox" --
    The Red Sox rallied from a four-run deficit to snap their losing streak. - AP

    "Ludi Gratia Ludis" - NPS

    And three cheers for Barbara!

  15. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 11, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.


  16. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 11, 2014 at 10:11 p.m.


    Speaking of psychological distress:

    Another good topic for Mr. Mandese & his associates, given Wayne Friedman's recent expressed concerns about Media Moguls in Idaho.



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