Whether FOX’s coverage of the 2011 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona will be deemed a success or not will depend largely on the TV ratings that the broadcast garners. FOX pulled out all of the bells and whistles on this telecast to bring a flashy and exciting 3-hour production of one of the top soccer games in the world to a U.S. audience. It’s hard to fault them on the delivery, but I have many question marks about the content.
The first thing you have to look at is the target demographic that FOX was trying to tailor its broadcast to. It’s impossible to please everyone, but it was clearly evident that FOX was framing their broadcast based on the notion that either a soccer newbie or someone not well versed in the sport was watching it. There was the “Football versus Futbol” comparison with NFL athlete Michael Strahan breaking down the most common differences between soccer and gridiron football. Then there was the player profiles on Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney, as well as a basic guide to London, a mention of Shakira dating Pique, etc.
From the first few minutes, it was plain to see that this was a “Soccer For Dummies” broadcast. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Obviously FOX is paying millions to broadcast this tournament to us, so it’s ultimately their decision who they want to try to attract. Again, if the TV ratings are the highest ever for a Champions League match on US television and their sponsors are satisfied after paying globs of money, then it’s a job well done for FOX. However for the soccer fans and purists, it leaves us out in the cold.
While the 45 minute pre-game show was beautiful to watch in HD, the content delivered was useless. For example, during the entire 45 minute pre-game show, there wasn’t one mention that Dimitar Berbatov was not starting and not even on the bench. Plus the team lineups weren’t even mentioned until three minutes before kick-off. The Berbatov exclusion could have generated a five-minute conversation to say the least. But for the die-hard soccer fans who have been with FOX since the days of Fox Sports World to Fox Soccer Channel, what is the message that FOX is telling us? That we’d be better off tuning out of the pre-game coverage so we can get our real news elsewhere and then just tune in for the 90 minutes of the game?
The pre-game show could have been taped in a studio in Los Angeles two days prior to the broadcast and it would have been just the same other than the backdrop of Wembley Stadium. The topics discussed were run-of-the-mill conversations that didn’t provide one piece of new information. There was no sense that it was live even though we know it was. We would have learned more from two minutes of Bobby McMahon than we did from 45 minutes of Menefee/Wynalda/Friedel.
Looking back to last summer’s World Cup, ESPN took a different tactic when bringing the sport to the United States. Instead of dumbing down its coverage, as FOX did today, they played it right down the middle where there was expert analysis from some of the best pundits in the world combined with some features about interesting stories and player profiles. But rather than play to the lowest common denominator, ESPN delivered an end product that didn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence and was captivating at the same time.
If FOX’s TV ratings for the Champions League is a massive success and those new soccer fans graduate to Fox Soccer Channel to cure their newfound addiction to the sport, then it’s a success. But if FOX’s intentional dumbing down of its coverage fails to win over the mainstream, then it also disenfranchises its most loyal viewers at the same time as it fails to generate the interest among the mainstream.
The question I have, however, is when in the future will FOX decide that it doesn’t need to dumb down the sport anymore? When will the critical mass be reached when it doesn’t have to do this? Or will they always adopt this tactic until the sport becomes (if ever) big enough where the Soccer For Dummies lesson isn’t needed anymore?
It’s not surprising that many soccer fans would prefer their sport to remain an underground success. At that rate, it wouldn’t be commercialized to the point where it’s trying too hard to appeal to the masses and focuses on its core audience instead. My argument is that there’s a way to appeal to both audiences as can be judged by the record TV ratings that ESPN garnered for its coverage of the 2010 World Cup.