ESPN’s World Cup coverage is, overall, one of their best properties. A lot of us are both impressed and saddened that they’re covering Brazil 2014 as well as they are considering it’s a lame duck property. But The Worldwide Leader is doing this in the spirit of leaving a huge standard for Fox to live up to, and boy, are they ever this summer.
I want to talk about something ESPN’s doing during this World Cup that I hope can change a little bit of how we do sports television right now. Pretty much every night for the past week, I’ve been tuning into World Cup Tonight, the 90-minute recap show that airs on ESPN2 every evening in various timeslots to break down the day’s action. For something that had to hit the ground running so quickly, I’ve been very impressed.
The first half-hour or so of the show continues ESPN’s regular studio coverage of the World Cup, i.e. it’s dudes at a desk talkin’ sports. That’s all well and good, but because it’s so formal, it really varies in quality based on who has the right command on the language and the right stage presence to make themselves compelling in small soundbites. Americans tend to do better on the show because guys like Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas know how to do television, and more specifically American television.
When the show transfers into its second half, however, it becomes one of the best sports shows I’ve seen in a while. At some point, in a moment of silliness, a producer will yell “last call!” and the entire crew will loosen up (some will literally loosen ties and remove jackets), move over to a cabana-styled set, and have a more freeform discussion.
The last call set has been somewhat liberating for analysts like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Michael Ballack, who can speak a little more freely without worrying about being TV friendly in a second language. The whole atmosphere is a really nice one and a lax one.
Here’s the thing: Fox has tried this sort of thing before. A lot of the early Fox Sports Live panels were just group discussions in chairs. However, here’s what ESPN got right on their World Cup show: everyone is an expert in their field, and nothing is ever that serious. Donovan McNabb isn’t talking about NASCAR drivers not being athletes here. While Fox’s panel tried to mix being hilarious and treating sports like it was the most important thing in the world, World Cup Tonight treats the event it’s covering like what it should be: fun, and light entertainment.
The hosts for the shows are either Bob Ley or Mike Tirico, along with typically Julie Foudy to help guide the discussion a bit further. It can’t be said how great Ley and Tirico are as hosts for this event. Ley is the expert, but Tirico has found a way to shine hosting World Cups, adopting sort of an “enthusiastic outsider” persona, yet never really sounding out of place at the event.
There are some things that aren’t fabulous about the show, like the classic bad sports TV trope of reading tweets on air. Sometimes the American personalities can dominate the discussion a little bit too much. Sometimes the whole thing breaks into abject silliness, but you’d really rather that than the polar opposite.
So, why can’t other stuff look like this? Why aren’t regional sports networks setting a half-hour aside after every broadcast to feature a few analysts, and maybe some writers covering the team (ESPN FC’s writers have appeared on the show) have a loose, casual discussion of what’s going on. Why can’t the vibe of sports television, overall, treat sports more like entertainment than life and death?
I think sports networks need to trust in their viewers a little bit more, and look into doing more shows like World Cup Tonight, which sadly, must go away once the tournament ends. As long as you have the right attitudes and a cast free of ego, you can do this sort of show and probably gain a cult following doing it. But finding all of those things are easier said than done.