When ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup began on opening day, June 12, my main thought was that the producers for its soccer coverage must have been counting down the days until the NBA Finals and US Open were over.
At first, the focus on two traditional American sports seemed to get in the way of its World Cup coverage. Two of the opening four games were relegated to ESPN2. Unfortunately, outside of the games themselves and the World Cup coverage, ESPN’s attention to the World Cup seemed more like an afterthought. “We saw some shocks yesterday, but nothing shocked us like what happened in Miami last night…” was one of the opening lines from SportsCenter before they drifted into discussion of the NBA. Even last weekend, SportsCenter’s morning coverage focused a large part on the 20 years since the OJ Simpson highway chase. ESPN isn’t ignoring soccer, by any means, but the sports network is trying to placate the traditional American sports fan.
The best and most frustrating example of this was ESPN’s coverage of the USA against Ghana game. The coverage went from the highs of watching the USA team record a late win against Ghana to the lows of ESPN hurrying along its post-match coverage so it could lead into a Boston Red Sox baseball game. To make matters even worse, who was the baseball announcer that greeted surprised soccer viewers? None other than Dave O’Brien.
Yes, ESPN’s World Cup coverage continued immediately after the US-Ghana game on ESPNEWS, but ESPN instantly lost the momentum, excitement and I’m sure a large percentage of viewers by switching channels after such a historic win for the US team. The transition was sloppy, and would have been better if the baseball game was switched to ESPNEWS instead unless ESPN was contracted to show the MLB game on the main network.
During a typical day’s coverage of the World Cup on ESPN, the practice of switching from one ESPN channel to another and back again has become tiresome — whether it’s for World Cup Tonight, Last Call or the games themselves. That’s one significant advantage that Univision has. Once you turn on their channel, you know that all of its World Cup content can be found in one place without reaching for the remote control.
ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is a perfect reminder of what sports coverage is like when you’re not watching a dedicated 24/7 soccer channel — like FOX Soccer was, and what GolTV tries to be. Even during a World Cup, soccer is not the number one priority for ESPN. The “Worldwide leader in sports” is just that, a sports network. And a mainstream sports network at that where soccer, outside of the World Cup, is largely ignored.
When ESPN does feature the World Cup, and there’s no doubt that ESPN is giving the tournament a lot of airtime, the broadcasts of the world’s most popular sporting tournament have been — for the most part — wonderful to watch.