Update: After reading our piece, ESPN has elected not to comment.
I got to thinking about this topic the other day on a trail run of mine.
For those of you new to TSG, in a former life, I was the fact checker for the late Peter Jennings at World News Tonight on ABC (a great education in all ways), was an assistant on some news shows and then eventually got into the Web world through working for CNBC.
The amalgamation of experience, specifically the analytical addition of having reporting and metrics available through the web, has shaped my perception of what media is. That web move have prepared me for the world of interactivity and always-on data streaming that we see today in sport and across other news outlets.
With these thoughts in mind, last week my mind drifted to ways that ESPN can improve their soccer coverage leading up to the World Cup and beyond.
First, you can already argue that ESPN’s cash and effort outlay outweighs the financial rewards on their bottom line. I think that one is easy to see.
ESPN has made some great soccer specific strides. Some of these are phenomenal: the ever-mentioned addition of Martin Tyler to add sophistication to the soccer broadcast this summer, the addition of hard-to-find games to the program at ESPN360.com, and the integration of soccer scores on ESPN’s homepage.
By and large, we’re a fan of how ESPN has chosen to be on the vanguard of new media.
There is more they can do though…and here are some idea. Note, TSG reached out to ESPN for comment, however and somewhat ironically they are still working on feedback.
5) Pick up the telestrator
In sports, with a ball, say football, where there is an interaction of players with movement creating opportunities, the addition of the telestrator in the 1950s and the subsequent expert use by John Madden drastically improved game understanding and interaction with fans.
The un-interruptive nature of the soccer does not allow for the ease of the telestrator display, however there is no reason that ESPN can’t consider a box-in-box telestrator OR devote an area of Soccernet to in-game telestration. Soccernet already has textual game commentary and statistical in-game datafeeds, why not a telestator addition?
It would allow thousands of casual fans to learn the sport.
4) Introduce more contemporary personalities.
In a manner of speaking, both Tommy Smyth and Alexei Lalas are great. The former’s signature “bulge in the onion bag” and the latter’s somewhat hyperbolic and controversial lip add much needed color to the game.
However, the former last played a game in the 1970’s and the latter last played a game for his national side in 1998, meaning if you assume that the average little kid soccer fan starts paying attention to the game and understanding it when they’re in 4th grade or age 8 (that’s just my inflection point), then any soccer fan who is younger than 20 likely doesn’t remember the contributions or identify with the stature of each individual.
I’m not suggesting that ESPN rid itself of such announcers; I’m suggesting they sprinkle in some other personalities, like a Jimmy Conrad or Taylor Twellman after their retirements.
3) Make some drastic improvements to Soccernet
This is something that TSG can comment on as an expert. Here are some of our issues to solve:
» Lack of consistent navigation. When ESPN introduced their World Cup pages they changed around all of the navigation that the user can become accustomed to without so much as a warning. They failed Internet Usability 101.
» Stop the merry-go-round of freelancers. Look, there are costs to staff (salary, human resources, etc.), but part of the reason any reader comes to a publication is that they like a writer or a certain tone. In the last 4 months, beyond losing some of it’s regulars, ESPN Soccernet readers have been subjected to just-plain-wrong fare from writers–like Leander Schaerlaeckens referencing Brad Evans inclusion on the senior side in the midfield, to introducing the Soccer Power Index but failing to follow-up. Where the heck has that gone?!
» Increase the frequency and accuracy of updates to the site. The TSG community helped shame ESPN into updating their World Cup roster a few weeks back…that was still being promoted though it was from October and referenced players with zero shot of actually making the World Cup roster. So what did they do? They replaced it with inaccurate information again. Not acceptable.
2) Profile players, overseas and in MLS, during the season
ESPN actually wrote the playbook on this one and it’s a no-brainer. One way that ESPN has driven interest in peripheral sports programming, like Poker and Bowling, is to develop the personalities of the competitions. I now know more about Phil Helmuth than I ever wanted to, but, you know what, it creates an opinion about him (in TV it’s called a “Q rating”) whenever he’s on. So I pay attention and watch.
In broadcasting school they teach you if you’re a sports broadcaster to, “have people hate you or love you, but don’t have them have no opinion.”
Soccer abroad and at home has personalities, personalities that are not established and who would benefit, from future sponsorship deals, from having exposure on ESPN. Overseas, Stu Holden, who is still getting established, or Jay DeMerit, established through hard knocks, have both the charisma and the story behind them to make them interesting. A little bit of air time and they’ll be hocking more than Mexican lottery tickets.
At home, what about a player like Kyle Beckerman? A career MLSer and member of the USSF farm system, who is now a champion and involved in many charities.
You help make casual fans care by developing a rapport with the players who play the game so that it drives folks back. It’s the ESPN way or the Food Network way if you prefer. (In the comment section so as to not belabor here I’ll talk about how this impacts sponsorship.)
1) How about a Game of the Week?
When I worked at NBC, we put a lot of promotional muscle behind the Movie of the Week. It was a destination event, one where people could chat about online later or talk about around that metaphoric water cooler. There were contests and ancillary content and whole heck of a lot of advertising.
It was phenomenally possible.
That happens with the broadcast networks already with the game of the week across different sports leagues.
Heck, it even happens at TSG…and at the Guardian!
ESPN should take this, author a slot on ESPN or ESPN 2 and host a true game of the week.
Now here’s the tricky part–you can’t just make it a MLS game, not that you would want to and you need to be cognizant of the time zones.
Nope, make it a college game, make it an EPL game that you overpay for, make it a Champ’s League game (yes I know the rights are currently lost for ESPN on this one). But pay up for one game here and there with the stipulation that it needs to occur at a time that you set for it.
Here’s how you do it…just like the NFL plays in London, work with leagues to split costs with teams to play on an East Coast city. This introduces say Rangers and Celtic or better Inter and A.C. to a new audience with the promotional might behind ESPN.
After rights are secured, build content for a whole week around the game about the players, the city, the fans, the stadium, etc….but again….keep that game at the same time slot….so fans can talk about it online or the next day at the water cooler.
Come to think of it, just hire TSG.
But seriously can you imagine Arsenal v. Chelsea at Red Bull Arena?