Something magical has happened to us though in 2006. Despite the proliferation of nay-saying articles in the run up to kick off of "The World Eagerly Awaits, But Americans Could Not Care Less" variety and in spite of the Czech debacle, a break through has been made: bars in every major city are packed on game day, columns like Hirshey's Deadspin riff (is he the thinking man's George Vescey?) show signs of vibrant home-grown soccer analysis, and major outlets have repetitive front page coverage of every game. And all of these great strides are taking place even though America has yet to produce its first truly world class player.
So, close your eyes for a second and put yourself in the mindset of the legions of casual American sports fans tuning in to soccer for the first time -- those individuals who, for instance, are watching TEAM USA but who have not yet bought the How Football Explains the World. This is their moment. ESPN has taken the remarkable step of airing all the games. On HD no less. So they look fabulous. Which brings us back to Balboa, a man who could be presented as Exhibit A proof that heading a soccer ball can be hazardous to your health. All the casual viewer needs is a voice that is intelligent and accessible. But instead you get Balboa, a man that even corporate strategist charged with devising a way to ensure that America continued to only care about sports that allowed regular heavy doses of commercial breaks could invent in a laboratory -- one part Homer Simpson, two parts Chance the Gardner with a dash of George Bush. The World Cup deserves better, the medium term growth of soccer in this country via a sustained interest and continued growth of television ratings and the advertising revenue that brings will depend on it, and best of all, you Americans can do better. |link|
There's absolutely no doubt that Balboa stinks, but, as many of Bennett's commenters have pointed out, that's pretty much how it goes with sports commentary in America. The idea that viewers are going decide whether to stick with a sport based on the quality of the commentary is pretty well put to rest by the example of John Madden.
That said, I think that this year's World Cup tournament has achieved something unprecedented in America -- it's become relevant for the casual sports fan. How did this happen? A lot of it is fallout from 2002. The surprising American performance in that tournament gave this year's squad an artificially high ranking, and that ranking, in turn, gave birth to the hope that the USA might make a run in this World Cup. And from that small sliver of hope came the ESPN/ABC sports entertainment juggernaut's decision to broadcast every single match. That was crucial. Just having the matches available (and at convenient times) is a big step, but it's also important that the highlights are getting pride of place on SportsCenter. And let's not underestimate the contributions of ESPN's unparalled marketing department.
Is there a future in it? Well, soccer isn't ever going to supplant the NFL, but I have a feeling that the Italy match is going to be a turning point for USA Soccer. Not so much because the USA played well or showed grit, though of course they did. No, I think what's so important about that match is that the USA got jobbed, and very likely would have won otherwise. That's the sort of drama that brings the folks back for the next episode.