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ESPN’s big presentation helped make World Cup special

July 11, 2014 

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Lindsey Welch (left) and Jaime Vega react as there is no penalty called during regulation time against Belgium as they battle the United States team in the knockout round of the World Cup. They were watching the game at Devine's Grill and Sports bar on July 1.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

The World Cup of 2014, which concludes Sunday with Germany and Argentina meeting for the title, has been a soccer competition unlike any other for our country. It’s produced the most Tweeted-about single sporting game or match ever (the Germany vs. Brazil semifinal) and matches that have consistently drawn both record television ratings for broadcaster ESPN and incredibly well-attended match viewing parties across the United States.

It appears the long awaited and much talked about explosion of soccer interest has arrived. But it comes with a catch, one that may be tough for longtime soccer advocators to take. It’s this: the attention that this year’s tournament has drawn is due in part to ESPN’s NFL-like presentation of the sport.

That’s right, the recent domestic success of the world’s most popular 11-v-11 sport is due — in part — to a broadcaster’s decision to go into a full tilt blitz of coverage. Lengthy pregame shows, the best broadcasters available and a great nightly wrap up talkfest — ESPN FC— that appeals to both longtime soccer fans and Olympic-style fans who just love watching competition between countries in any form.

The popularity of the National Football League is tied to how great it plays on television, dating back to the 1958 NFL Championship game. The game, viewed as the birthplace of the NFL as we know it. So much works for football and television: the shape of the field, the number of players involved and enthuastiac crowds.

What other sport has those same qualities? Why soccer, of course, which is the NFL and then some in popularity everywhere else in the world. And it’s that fact that ESPN has seemed to have recognize in its coverage of the tournament.

Jeremy Byrd, who has been the boys and girls soccer coach at South Johnston High School and could be considered an avid Premier League fan, noticed the change in coverage started with the last European season. NBC Sports Network paid big bucks to become the lead broadcaster of the EPL last fall and shows multiple matches and an assortment of highlight and pregame shows wrapped around the on the pitch action. Fox also put UEFA Champions League matches on standard TV this past year and will continue to do so in the future after renewing that rights deal.

As local fan and soccer coach Keith Jenkins, who started the boys program at Clayton High School and is now the athletic facility supervisor at Wake Med Soccer Park in Cary, noted this year’s World Cup has also benefitted from great timing.

“We have hit the perfect storm in regard to other pro sports now being done,” Jenkins said. “NBA Championships: done. If they were still going on, there would be a focus there. NHL Championships: done. NFL Football: not playing. MLB Baseball: too early in the season for anyone to really pay attention (daily).”

And like anything else that pops up on your TV at any time of the year, that timing was perfectly timed out by ESPN. Nobody works with sports leagues and tournaments to massage schedules to all fit into the perfect spot between one big event and the next like ESPN does.

The biggest challenge for soccer as a made for TV sport rivaling the NFL is what to do over the next four years when the World Cup rolls around again. The continued growth of Major League Soccer here in the United States and more exposure through viewable on your phone, tablet or TV of international leagues will help keep soccer in a brighter light until the 2018 tournament in Russia.

At that point the issue for U.S. fans ‘— both raving and casual — will be the eight-hour time difference which makes the ideal summer afternoon and early evening broadcasts of this year’s Cup not possible.

But that’s what makes fans, fans: having to go the extra mile to root on whatever team or sport they’re rabid about. And there will definitely be many more of those of the World Cup soccer vein four years from now, thanks, in part to ESPN’s outstanding coverage of this year’s tournament.

Best: 919-524-8895 or cbest@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @dclaybest

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