Networks' World Cup coverage both scores, misses

Originally Published: June 27, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

ESPN and its corporate partner, ABC, have undertaken the difficult task of covering the world's most popular sports event -- the FIFA World Cup -- in a wall-to-wall treatment rarely given to soccer in the U.S. The results, so far, have been favorable, with solid ratings despite the first-round elimination of the U.S. team.

Nevertheless, trying to please soccer fans -- among the most discerning and hard-to-please of any group -- is another story. Consider some of the complaints and questions to the ombudsman since the competition began June 9:

  • The play-by-play announcers don't know the game and players well enough.

  • Studio commentators are too biased in their analysis and don't provide sufficient depth.

  • There's much too much complaining about the referees.

  • The crawls and bars on the screen are maddening.

  • Where's the crowd noise at some games?

  • Are the announcers even at the games?

    Tim Scanlan, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN's World Cup operation, has heard the comments and complaints, getting hundreds of e-mails and voice messages a day in Germany. He understands not all of the nearly three million viewers watching each day are happy; but he also knows many are pleased and his goal over the final 10 days of competition is to solve some of the problems and make more viewers happy.

    "We've tried to convey the passion the rest of the world has for this sport to our country, as well as educate our viewers by sharing our knowledge of the game," Scanlan said in a telephone interview. Scanlan has a staff of about 100 working in Germany and a significant number of additional staffers at ESPN's Bristol headquarters. He said "the logistics of covering games in Germany, as well as from FIFA's broadcast headquarters in Munich, have at times been difficult."

    ESPN has been using five two-man broadcasting teams, with three of the five teams working from stadiums in Germany and two operating from Bristol. I can't figure out which announcing teams are on site, and which are not.

    "We did not want to mislead," Scanlan said.

    But Scanlan can fix that situation immediately by informing viewers -- either by crawl or voice -- the locations from which the announcers are working.

    The quality of the five announcing teams, led by Dave O'Brien and Marcelo Balboa, has been solid, although some soccer bars in the U.S. have chosen to use the BBC play-by-play with the ESPN telecast.

    "They [BBC] know the players better," explained one tavern owner.

    Scanlan takes exception to that, pointing out ESPN's commentators are experienced broadcasters and had extensive briefings before the competition. Still, more background on the players and coaches -- such as the way Joe Morgan dishes out inside baseball to viewers on Sunday nights -- would help. Shelley Smith's features, though, are good and do add to the coverage.

    ESPN, Scanlan said, uses the international (HBS) feeds for its coverage, as well as adding a number of additional cameras of its own. A total of 33 cameras per game will be used beginning with the quarterfinals.

    Meanwhile, ESPN's analysts have been provocative, if not always balanced. Julie Foudy and Eric Wynalda called for the dismissal of U.S. coach Bruce Arena after Ghana eliminated the United States from the tournament last Thursday. Was there no one to support Arena, whose eight years of coaching the U.S. National team has drawn mostly praise?

    With ESPN committed to covering the major international men's and women's soccer events through the next 10 years, continued improvement in the coverage will occur. Answers to questions will be common, such as "What kind of training do the officials receive prior to this kind of competition?" and "Why have there been so many yellow and red cards?"

    "It's a huge event that we're doing double and triple ratings over what we've ever done before with soccer," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "As this country continues to diversify, you'll continue to see the sport grow."

    Double-takes

  • ESPN might think twice about having its on-air personalities advertising Mobile ESPN phones. I believe it compromises the reporters and commentators.

  • Nor would I have advocated ESPN running a men's college basketball tournament next season (the ESPNU Classic) involving eight teams at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It sends a bad message to some teams on the outside looking in, wondering about ESPN giving favorable treatment to the participating teams and tournament.

  • Nor would I make a habit of featuring actors in Disney movies (Owen Wilson from "Cars" for example) on "The Budweiser Hot Seat."

    In the eye of the beholder

    In March, "Outside the Lines" did a show that included Baltimore native and Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony appearing in a video set in Baltimore, in which several people advocated residents not cooperate (or "snitch") with police. In one scene, reported Milton Kent, a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, Anthony "was seen standing next to a man who used the phrase 'hole in the head' which has been widely interpreted to mean the man was suggesting that snitches be killed."

    Kent said "the hole in the head" comment to Anthony referred to his "sense of aggravation at the 2004 Olympics" -- that he needed "criticism from the Olympics like a hole in the head."

    Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news, said the OTL production reported that "Carmelo was in the video, may not have been aware how the video was going to be used, and quickly distanced himself from its meaning, which the piece detailed. We made a good faith effort in the OTL show to report Anthony meant no harm to anyone.

    "As to what the man who used the term 'hole in the head' intended, it isn't clear. What is clear is the people who produced the video edited that segment to convey a violent intent."

    Surfing

  • Some viewers wonder if too much politics might be creeping into commentaries, such as Orel Hershiser's praise for President Bush after a recent visit to The White House, and soccer analyst Eric Wynalda's tweak of the President after the latter's call to Arena. My take: Too many ESPN commentators believe viewers care about their political leanings, when in fact they don't.

  • Many compliments these days for baseball commentator Harold Reynolds, whose work at the popular College World Series draws raves from viewers. My take: Reynolds does very well at sharing his knowledge without being condescending.

  • Some viewers were surprised Michael Irvin recently was assigned to interview Terrell Owens, considering their close relationship. Irvin, who has improved his work significantly in the past year, served up too many soft questions and took a step back. My take: Irvin never should have been assigned the interview.

  • New record: It took less than 15 minutes to receive the first complaint regarding ESPN's Wimbledon coverage -- even before any of the commentators had anything about which to comment.

  • Caught Jim Rome's rant against O.J. Simpson and an X-rated video that reportedly involves the former football star. Rome's commentary was tasteless. Someone needs to do a better job of editing Rome, who needs to be held to the same standards as everyone else at ESPN. Also, on the radio side, Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were less than fair and professional in their tawdry description of Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karamos.

  • There was saturation coverage of "Around the Horn" panelist and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti's feud with Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Guillen's use last week of a derogatory term to describe someone's sexual orientation in referring to Mariotti had to be reported. But the situation has received enormous attention without much context. I would like to see more reporting by ESPN and other media on Guillen, as well as previous writer-manager feuds.

  • Some viewers remain unhappy over ESPN's day-to-day coverage of Barry Bonds. I attribute their complaints to continued resentment of ESPN Original Entertainment's shelved-for-the-moment "Bonds on Bonds" series. My take: ESPN's coverage of Bonds this month has been reasonable and balanced. But I would suggest the network's baseball producers take another look at the recently published book "Game of Shadows" by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. There are a lot of story ideas in those pages.

  • I fear possible expulsion from the Organization of News Ombudsmen should it find out that I comment on and offer observations for a national television network that covers paintball.

    Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.