Thursday, August 11, 2011

Making The Case: Time for ESPN To Get Serious

UPDATE: Austin soccer community. The offending section of this article has been removed. We never meant to imply that the bar mentioned originally in this article, their commitment to soccer was anything less than absolute. But to define the difficulty in the bar (and ESPN by proxy) have in balancing the needs of "mainstream" sports, soccer fans in America (of other leagues), and American soccer fans. Our deepest apologies. We've already contacted the bar owner to personally apologies and we hope that you all will take that into account in your future interactions with the FBM.


Editor's Note: We've published several op-eds on the Free Beer Movement site, but with no real distinction between what is news and what is opinion. Our editorials are now going to come with the feature tag "Making the Case", well, because its an awesome beer pun, and we love those. 

It's really hard to look ESPN right in the eye and tell them to get "serious" about soccer. After all we just got done with a summer where the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" gave the Women's World Cup production value the tournament has never seen before. Not to mention the previous summer's men's Cup, and the strides the network has made bringing on the likes of Ian Darke to call U.S. Men's National Team games.

But we will. We must.

Last night ESPN2 televised a "qualifier" match for the Little League World Series before the scheduled USMNT friendly against Mexico. Not surprisingly, baseball, as it often does, did not finish on time (is there such a thing as "on time" baseball?) and the beginning of the soccer game was forced to ESPNews and remained there for a good 20 minutes.

ESPN's soccer coverage got you pissed off?
ESPN has a contract with the organizers of the LLWS and they are obligated to show the game to its conclusion we sure (although ESPN also has a contract with U.S. Soccer), but of the dozens, if not hundreds of "qualifiers" that take place for the children's tournament why this one at this time? ESPN had to know there was the potential for a baseball game to continue, practically, indefinitely. Coverage could have started earlier for the game (I'm sure the LLWS would've obliged) or not at all and placed on another night when it wasn't the lead-in for any other fixed-time sporting event. Even if it wasn't the soccer game, baseball's tendency to go long is a huge obstacle to ESPN's regular programming. Back-to-back live programming is hardly ever a good idea.

Wading into the waters of discussing whether televising children playing baseball makes any sense is for another time and day. This column is mostly about moving forward rather than looking backwards.

ESPN released a statement this afternoon that spelled out their policy on continuing in-progress events:
"Starting US-MEX on ESPNEWS was unfortunate circumstance but this is one of the challenges of back-to-back live events. ESPN almost always sticks with the live event until it ends. Soccer fans would want the same if a match ran long. Fans were alerted of sched change and match was still available in HD and on ESPN3. Otherwise, hope you liked ESPN’s unprecedented commitment to this friendly."
The disconnect is that this was a much-hyped match for the cable sports network. ESPN's SportsNation was live on the scene, the broadcasting team almost had enough for a starting 11, and there was also a pre-game show. ESPN wanted to drag hardcore fans and casuals to Jurgen Klinsmann's first match with otherwise was just another game against U.S.'s regional rival.

As it often goes for ESPN what they determine as important sports (poker, bowling) they can make important sports. Last night's match, before kickoff, had all the appearances of a marquee event for ESPN.

Then problem then isn't really that ESPN did what they most always do and not-preempt coverage of a live event, but the "Jekyll and Hyde" approach the network has with soccer. If they want to be the "world wide leader in sports" then they've got to market to global sports and that means soccer. This means ramping up their coverage of the English Premier League, including more and more European league matches on its ESPN3 platform, and unprecedented coverage of the World and European Cups. Their website covering the Premier League, Soccerner, is top-rate.

What remains to be seen is what ESPN will do about AMERICAN soccer. Major League Soccer has a semi-regular spot in prime time and the National Team features on their family of networks for friendlies and qualifiers, but the American soccer portion of Soccernet is atrocious. What does ESPN really want from its domestic soccer coverage?

ESPN and it's sew-saw relationship with American soccer needs to get serious. They've certainly got the on-air talent and the production quality, but soccer fans are sensitive and fickle. Droves bolted to Univision and were never bothered by the ESPN2 to ESPNews to ESPN2 switch-a-roo, patrons in the bar I was at were incensed, and DVRs nationwide caught the exciting conclusion of children's baseball and probably missed the end. Nothing like a soccer fan scorned.

Part of the reason we hardly see other sporting events interrupted like last night is because there's so much pomp and circumstance before and after other American sports. NFL broadcasts start and finish an hour on each end so if there happen to be a long running whatever the studio show can be cut down. Baseball and baseball on ESPN are front-loaded with "__________ Tonight" as a buffer as well. The network broadcast the game at 9pm CT, but that wasn't late enough for children's baseball and had a pre-game show, but it was relegated to ESPNews as well.

It's time that ESPN, despite the investment in personnel and production also add a mentality that puts soccer on equal footing when entered into the broadcast schedule. If the game was such a marquee event as the network billed it (and once it was on, it was great) then it should be afforded the same scheduling treatment that other big events on ESPN get.

Graphic Credit: Free Beer Movement
With MLS and U.S. Soccer landing a new home on NBC and the re-branded Versus (it will soon become "NBC Sports Network") ESPN might have a bit more competition for serious domestic coverage of the game. The three-year, $10 million deal specifically stated two-and-a-half-hour broadcast windows with pre- and post-game shows something ESPN has only begun recently. Fox Soccer was always an acceptable home for MLS, but NBC's deal is for bigger bucks and bigger exposure (there are plans for lots of promotion for the league during NBC's broadcast of the 2012 Olympics).

ESPN could do little about their contractual obligations to the LLWS last night and certainly soccer has benefited from the same treatment from the network before, but what we saw last night had less to do with commitments than with a mentality that puts American soccer in the backseat in Bristol. If ESPN is serious about the global game they've got to get serious about the American game as well. You can't build one without the other in the U.S. because Nats fans are often EPL and other continental league fans as well. Put up a poor showing in one and we'll find other options.

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30 comments:

JayBeingJay said...

I bartend in a university town, and while we are the official watch bar for the nearest MLS team, I am under pretty strict orders from the owner that if MLB or NCAA fans start to throw a fit, I am to capitulate to them and turn the TV's to more "mainstream" sports. Its a fine line to walk, and I'm not looking forward to a potential MLS playoff qualifier or actual playoff game that bumps up against the NCAA football machine here. Alas.

RJ said...

We have been in similar situations here in Cleveland. When looking for our first home bar we were told flatly, no, by many of the large bars in town in deference to NASCAR by one, anything but soccer at another, and from the only official U.S. Soccer bar in downtown Cleveland (rhymes with Slannery's) we were told that they couldn't spare one tv because a regular season Cavs game was on. . .it was sad.

Juxtapoz that with our new place, Jocko's, where last night 90% of the sets were turned from the Indians v Tigers game (plating for 1st place btw) to the PreGame once we found it and then the USMNT. Loyalty goes a long way, ESPN would be well served to learn a thing or two from our home bar!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, don't mention how the USSF scheduled a friendly with only a month's notice, then fans whined and complained when an event scheduled long before it ran over when everyone with a brain knew that might happen.

The childishness is really overdone. You missed 20 minutes - the worst 20 minutes of the game at that - of a friendly designed to do nothing but make money off the ticket buyers. Get over yourself.

Anonymous said...

My biggest issue with it has to do with the regional vs national issue. The USA Mexico event had implications for people throughout the entire country. Living in RI, I have no interest in 12 year olds from Alabama and Florida playing baseball. A secondary complication is that some cable providers have ESPN2 and ESPNews on seperate tiers of service so not everyone had access to the first 20 minutes. The programming with a broader audience should have taken top billing.

PZ said...

Bottom line, it's a numbers game. Until the numbers reach and exceed the numbers for the other sports, it doesn't make sense. When bar owners see everyone standing around the one TV with the soccer game & the rest of the bar empty, they won't (and shouldn't) make changes.

Yeah, the argument could be made that ESPN should have done a better job of scheduling things...heck, the probably will now they are paying for the right to show the games rather than MLS/USSF doing a time-buy. Remember those days when things didn't ge switched to ESPN News? Yeah, it sucks but it has improved.

The sad bit is, there were still probably more people watching the kids baseball game than the soccer game. It is what it is, move on.

Stevi said...

@JayBeingJay We understand :-)

Cuatro said...

As the owner of said college bar in this piece, I want to say that I was misquoted. I expressly said that the university throwball games would take precedence over a USMNT game on our largest screen (16 HD TV's put together to form one large screen), but that the USMNT games would be shown throughout the restaurant.
Also, we don't just "love soccer" from a convenience standpoint as it was made to show in this article. We sponsor our local men's soccer league, we host charity matches for our Chelsea and Arsenal supporters groups, televise all men's and women's national team games, as well as opening sometimes five hours early so our soccer clientele can watch the early EPL games. Soccer is not something that we do out of convenience, we do it because we truly do love the game and want to promote the sport, as does FBM.
In this conversation that the author of this piece speaks of, myself and the bar pledged support to his movement and to do everything we can to help promote the sport. Then for him to compare us to ESPN in their nominal coverage of US soccer is a slap in the face. You can't profess to want to promote soccer and then verbally bash somebody else for not promoting soccer the way you want them to.

Anonymous said...

The first anonymous commenter makes a good point regarding the scheduling of the US match vs the scheduling of the yearly little league baseball game.

Also note that I'm one of those who DVR'd the match to watch as soon as I got home. Poured myself a beer, turned the DVR on and got-little league baseball. Bummer! I survived though by hitting the fast forward button until the game was over and the US match was on.

Given the fact that ESPN handled this conflict exactly the same way it does for 90% of all its live event conflicts, I neither felt slighted or angry. I just felt unfortunate to have missed the first 20 minutes. It really wasn't that big of a deal.

In retrospect, I'm glad that ESPN even put this friendly on ESPN2 in the first place. I don't know if there was ever a time before when I've seen a US friendly on an ESPN Channel.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to point out that the DVR thing has happened to me several times before with other sports. I've never been angry or complained. I might have bitched a little, because no matter what, it is ALWAYS the case that the game the preempts my game is absolutely uninteresting to me. But perhaps I'm biased.

Nick said...

Due to the Satelite TV Package I have, the only issue this caused for me was my DVR doesn't automagically switch back and forth for me. My package also includes ESPNU which is an interesting channel to say the least...often showing talking heads pontificating about high-schoolers and their College Football destinations or Cheerleading/Dance competitions.

However, lately they've been showing the U-19 Euros, U-17/18 and U-20 World Cups, which is AWESOME. As I don't get ESPN3 with my internet provider, I'm in heaven that I can view all kinds of international footy that the main networks aren't up for carrying. The problem will come in the fall when College Football will no doubt trump any goings on in the world of soccer, and rightfully so on a University themed station. I wish ESPN would just bite the bullet now (probably at a bit of a loss in the near future) and create a soccer specific channel for the items and feeds they're already showing across their many platforms. To make it further worth their while they could put it on the Subscription platform that ESPNU/Classic is on. It'd be odd for a Soccer Specific ESPN when Football, Baseball, and Basketball don't have their own yet, but essentially they do. If they really wanted to appease the markets with some tongue-in-cheekiness, they could call it ESPN 8 The Ocho and show Rugby and Aussie Rules football (which they're already doing) and even some cricket for that market in this country.

Jens said...

Just got back from scraping off my FBM bumper sticker off my car and tossing my spares into the garbage. I simply cannot believe you would bash Cuatro's Restaurant. Using them as a metaphor for ESPN is so far from the truth, it's pathetic. Apparently you may have shown up once or twice to watch a game, but you have no clue about the history. By the way, I don't recall any burnt orange paint anywhere in the place.. Although there is a dozen footie scarfs, Arsenal and Chelsea flags, a framed Chelsea autographed shirt, and oh yeah a friggin 3 x 10 ft Chelsea Supporters club banner from a local supporters club hanging out on the patio.. apparently you missed seeing those. Cuatro's has NEVER turned off a footie match to turn on any UT sports event. He has always had a game on a television somewhere. He shows all leagues and isn't biased to any fans that come in. It seems that for whatever reason you blame him for being a business man who needs to make a living to support his family. Of course he is going to show UT games, he caters to his clients. Rather than kicking him, why don't you support him since what we need in this town is MORE owners willing to put on the footie games, not less.

Bentley said...

Really don't know what the point of bashing Cuatro's was in this article. The complaint is with ESPN not with the bar. Cuatro has been more than generous to open his bar at ungodly hours to allow us Chelsea fans to watch early morning games, many times showing up himself to cheer with us. He is a fan of footy just like the rest of us. Not everyone that goes there wants to watch the national team though... does that mean they should be kicked to the curb? Seriously that place has more TV's than it knows what to do with some times. Cuatro is amazing at making sure everyone has on a game they want to watch. One Wednesday last season Chelsea, Arsenal, and Barca were all playing different games at the same time. The place was packed with fans and Cuatro made sure that at least one TV was playing each of the games. He even turned on the Rangers throwball game for a guy that came in on his lunch brake. So do us all a favor and don't bash one of the only places as dedicated to footy as the rest of us and allows us to leave our homes and cheer with some fellow fans, something that is far to rare in the US.

Mike V. said...

Put me down as one more major Cuatro's supporter. The place has bent over backwards to become a footy destination and if there's a way to get a game on one of his screens, Cuatro's accommodates. When you see the place open at 6:30 AM for the early matches and he puts out a thermos of coffee for people to help themselves, you recognize that it's as much a labor of love than a profit opportunity. There's no other place like it in town and we should all be celebrating the work that the man does to promote the game.

Dave said...

Yeah I gotta agree with Jens and Cuatro here, I've been at Cuatro's while there were NCAA or NFL games being broadcast watching USMNT games. Were they on the big screen? No, but I could sit at the bar with my mates, have a few pints and enjoy the game still. Cuatro's is one of a few really good sports bars in town that are catering to fans of the beautiful game. I can't believe you would compare the restaurant to the shambles that is ESPN.. poor form sir, poor form.

Dean said...
This post has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

The post never mentioned Cuatro's by name, and though I guessed that's the place he meant (also being an Austinite), nobody would ever have known if Cuatro and his buddies hadn't come on and said so.

Get over yourselves, guys. The point of the article obviously wasn't to bash a particular bar for not being a fervent enough supporter of soccer clientele. The point was a message to ESPN: soccer fans in the US want more from "The Worldwide Leader in Sport" than a fair-weather friend.

And when our country's national team -- yes, in a meaningless, moneymaking friendly; doesn't matter -- gets preempted by fucking *Little League baseball*, it's an insult.

That's where the analogy to the local bar breaks down. I wouldn't try to watch a soccer game at Cuatros in the middle of a Longhorn football game if you paid me, but on the other hand, I know Cuatro wouldn't refuse switching to the game I wanted just because there's a Little League game on (or poker, or bass-fishing, or whatever other bullshit ESPN fills their 24 hours with).

So: chill, fellas. I'm sure your favorite pub wasn't meant to be the target. It's a fine place, god bless it, raise a pint, cheers.

Dean said...

To take a swing at Cuatro's restaurant like that was absurd. His dedication to football is second to none. Before moving away, I frequented Cuatros. Waking up at 5am to find waiting at the bar a cheerful and enthusiastic Cuatro serving our coffee and morning Guiness that we are plenty awake to see our beloved blues grab another 3 points. I've been away for a couple of years now but I've yet to find a bar that can match up to Cuatro and his restaurant.

He may not have said the restaurant was Cuatros by name but the fact remains that we know what he meant and his metaphor is incorrect.

Nate said...

Hey FBM, not the smartest of moves bashing on Cuatro's. You just forfeited any potential support you might have had from the dozens of regulars who show up to watch footie matches there every week. And you needlessly insulted a guy who could have been invaluable in progressing your "movement".

To Cuatro: I (and everyone else who attends Cuatro's on a regular basis I'm sure) would like to say how much I appreciate the awesome environment you've provided us with to watch soccer. Thanks for opening the doors at all hours and getting in there and cheering on the Blues with us. It means a lot, and we're lucky to have a bar like yours to go to.

Final Note: FBM, in my opinion, you've just been relegated to the Championship.. peace.

Chris said...

Congrats to Jens on mobilizing the Austin Blues to storm the FBM battlements. You guys know this is the *world-wide* web, right? And that probably 0.04% of the regular readers (on days when Jens doesn't summon you all) would ever even hear of Cuatros, let alone come to Austin?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Chris, the name of the bar was never mentioned. It was the owner of the bar that chose to make his name/bar known. 4s is a fine place and I enjoy watching multiple sports there, but mostly soccer.

I didn't feel that FBM was throwing stones at the bar and there is no reasons to start throwing stones at FBM.

Anonymous said...

Never having been to Cuatro's I'm neutral-but make no mistake: FBM did take very, very big shots at the bar (without naming it, of course.) The context alone is enough, to associate the unnamed bar with ESPN regarding their lack of loyalty and commitment to soccer (which I disagree with on the ESPN part). But to put "love soccer" in quotes was a dagger that can't be ignored.

We all have to remember that this is an editorial piece and as such the typical response is usually polarizing, as it is now, so if FBM did not expect offense to have been taken on behalf of Cuatro's then FBM should reread the wording.

CJBinATX said...

Let's be clear, the post did not say that any bar was hostile to soccer matches, just that the standards set by US Soccer to become an official bar would not be met. Another game (whatever it may be) on the big screen with a soccer match on 1 or 2 other screens (which is what some commenters say they get) would NOT meet the requirements set forward by US Soccer. When the US team is playing, the requirement is to have their game on a majority of TVs *with sound*. It's bars that claim to be friendly to soccer that can't live up to this level of support that's the issue. There's one in particular taking offense in the comments, but I've been in several situations when the Mavs are in the playoffs and a "soccer friendly" bar shoves us soccer fans to the corner with one tv.

Shane said...

FBM,

I appreciate your enthusiasm and vision for transforming the American perspective and awareness of the game of football/soccer that we love. I also like that you are able to articulate specific hurdles that need to be overcome in terms of both TV programming and local bar/pub collaboration in order for this very gradual transformation to take place. I think we can all agree on those things, and it’s easy to be frustrated when we see soccer taking a backseat in American sports culture.

However, the criticism you have laid against Cuatros is not only friendly-fire, but completely irrational. I know this has been said already, but I still feel the need to explain it from my perspective; soccer bars like Cuatros, however far and few between they may be, are the pioneers of bringing a soccer culture to the United States. It’s easy to speak idealistically about how ESPN should be changing their programming, how local bars and pubs should be accommodating at all costs to the sport, how local fanbases should be built up and maintained - but without people to actively and decisively invest in the sport, all of that talk is meaningless. Opening at ungodly hours to accommodate any group of fans, having nearly every single soccer or European sporting TV network imaginable, hooking up laptops to TV screens for matches that were only being shown online, hanging up banners and jerseys, promoting upcoming soccer matches on their billboard outside, and avidly hosting one of the largest official local Chelsea fan clubs in North America…this is virtually unheard of and unparalleled in the United States.

There is literally a banner hanging up in Stamford Bridge as a direct result of Cuatros’ collaboration and belief in supporting the sport and its fans. I have met fans from literally all across the globe, fans of every imaginable club or national team, who find themselves at Cuatros to watch matches and enjoy themselves. I have been there when there were literally too many different fans wanting to watch too many different footie matches at the same time, even for the great number of HDTV’s that Cuatros has set up for this very purpose. Just this past weekend, I was watching the USA-Mexico friendly at a pub in Dallas when I met a man from South Africa who was so excited to hear of this bar in Austin that opened at any hour of the morning to show matches, and he said he wanted to visit when he was down there in a couple of months. He explained that his own local soccer hangout (still one of the best in Dallas) opened at a fixed hour every morning, and that he had to call in to find out if they would be showing any of the matches he wanted to watch. (…cont.)

Shane said...

(cont.)

As to your complaint about competition with the local university “throwball” game…I can’t even wrap my mind around it. One, Cuatros would absolutely not deny turning at least one of the TV’s to a match if there were fans there who wanted to watch it - I can guarantee you that. In fact, I’ve been there watching matches when there have been other major sports events being played simultaneously (NFL, NBA, MLB, college football, etc.). Two, if you plan to watch that match there, I propose you show up early to get a seat and tell the owner, who will be happy to get you and anyone else set up - I wouldn’t want all the “throwball” fans to show up before you and appear more committed to their own game. Three, when you are located in the heart of student residences for a university whose athletic program is formidable enough to have its own ESPN network, it makes absolutely no business sense whatsoever to deny fans of other sports the opportunity to watch what they want to watch in a sports bar.

Lastly, and this might be the most important point - do you feel it is intelligent to suggest alienating casual sports fans by being so exclusive and restrictive towards any other sport besides soccer? To have cultish “soccer bars” that are unyielding to other sports fans? Seems pretty hypocritical. Seems like that’s exactly the kind of unaccommodating attitude that most bars have towards soccer itself. No - if you want soccer to become an integrated part of the entire American sports culture (not some isolated sub-culture), that should be reflected in the place you go to watch matches and meet with other fans. Heaven forbid, there might even be a few “throwball” fans who take notice of all the soccer banners and scarves and strike up a conversation with those weirdos at the other table watching some soccer team they’ve never heard of. Maybe after they hear about the crazy hooligans singing and taking shots at 7:00 AM on Sunday mornings, they just might check it out sometime. That’s how the sport will actually grow, and that’s how it’s been growing at Cuatros for years.

So I'd advise you take a nap, have some coffee, and rethink a few things.

Anonymous said...

I would have never known what bar it was if I didn't read the comments. As someone who doesn't live anywhere near Texas, I don't think anyone could have picked up that the writer was referencing THAT particular bar unless they were a resident of Austin.

On another note, yes, I was a bit upset about the Little League World Series taking over my soccer game, but I just sucked it up and watched the game on Univision (since my basic cable package doesn't have ESPN News). I actually enjoyed the game better without having to listen to ESPN's commentators drone on and on the entire match.

Danny Beerseed said...

UPDATE: Austin soccer community. The offending section of this article has been removed. We never meant to imply that the bar mentioned originally in this article, their commitment to soccer was anything less than absolute. But to define the difficulty in the bar (and ESPN by proxy) have in balancing the needs of "mainstream" sports, soccer fans in America (of other leagues), and American soccer fans. Our deepest apologies. We've already contacted the bar owner to personally apologies and we hope that you all will take that into account in your future interactions with the FBM.

Anonymous said...

Great. Now can talk about how inferior the bar that DID qualify as Austin's AO home bar is compared to Cuatro's?

Danny Beerseed said...

Nope.

Anonymous said...

For the price of one beer at Fado you can get 2-3 at Cuatros. Free beer indeed!

Jens said...

Chris, you flatter me. To think that I could have enough influence to generate a barrage of comments is a little absurd. Yes, I posted it on FB, since social media is about sharing thoughts. If folks wanted to comment they did, such is the nature of blogs with a comment section. I met Dan a year or so ago through an Arsenal friend, Kyle. I fully support the movement, I personally felt he was a little off base on this particular post. All is good, we'll tip a pint a have a chin wag about this sometime soon I'm sure.

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