Can Cup Kick-Start U.S. Soccer Ratings?
If a sport got TV staying power from getting monstrous big-event ratings, then Olympic TV stars such as short-track speedskating and swimming would have long been TV sports staples. So would soccer, which drew some higher game ratings for the 1994 men's and 1999 women's World Cups than what ABC is averaging for the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers NBA Finals.
So why assume South Africa's Cup, no matter what ESPN/ABC's ratings, will have any effect on soccer's long-term U.S. TV future?
But ESPN executive vice president John Skipper, speaking from Johannesburg, suggested this go-round might be different. He cited the ancient argument that soccer is "inevitable" in the USA and "the big difference now is the higher (U.S.) interest in the sport overall."
That makes sense, given soccer has been one of the most popular youth sports in the U.S. for decades - a sport Americans seem more likely to play than watch. Major League Soccer's TV ratings have been moribund for years. And it's hard to imagine U.S. TV networks ever getting too psyched about soccer - it doesn't have timeouts for ads to run, let alone TV timeouts.
But ESPN's (albeit still tiny) ratings for last year's Confederations Cup final were up more than 80 percent. And ESPN2 has begun airing Saturday morning British soccer - giving any new soccer fans another TV option after the Cup. And, just maybe, Skipper said, the Cup could produce a freakish "flash point" that could be a turning point for U.S. soccer interest.
At least ESPN, in contrast with its Cup coverage in 2006, is assuming more Americans know something about soccer. Then, it relied heavily on U.S. announcers. Now, just one of the eight game announcers - John Harkes - is an American. "And we're mostly telling them to call soccer as they normally would," Skipper said. "We don't want them to sound too inside. But we decided this time to be authentic. We won't explain offsides."
A changeup for Strasburg
TV norms don't apply to Stephen Strasburg.
Normally, TBS has to schedule its Sunday afternoon baseball games 20 days in advance until August. But not with the Washington Nationals pitcher. On Thursday, TBS announced it got permission to drop its scheduled Sunday game - Philadelphia Phillies-Boston Red Sox - to carry Strasburg, at the Cleveland Indians in his second major league start (1 p.m. ET.)
TBS will add Dennis Eckersley to game coverage, with Dick Stockton and Buck Martinez, for a pitcher's perspective. Not that Eckersley, a six-time All-Star over a 24-year MLB career, has any advice: "I wish I did. But I can't relate. I just can't."
Eckersley suggested Strasburg's early stats will be helped by playing in the National League and getting to pitch to pitchers - "but every time I say something bad about the NL, I get in trouble" - and it didn't hurt that Strasburg's stunning debut was vs. the weak-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates. "But, if somebody could have had that kind of control with that adrenaline, I don't care who you're facing. And I didn't know he had that great changeup."
And he doesn't expect batters to catch up after they've faced Strasburg a few times: "Not when you have his stuff. I don't care if you've had 10 looks at him. I just love his delivery."
Eckersley couldn't recall another young pitcher getting so much attention. "Maybe Fernando Valenzuela in '81. But he threw three shutouts before everybody started paying attention. But this is a different day and age, when ESPN covers your minor league starts." And other TV networks redo their lineup cards to pencil in Strasburg.
For World Cup, ESPN puts on its 3D glasses
The 3D era in TV sports might end up little-noted nor long-remembered, but it's here.
ESPN 3D debuts with the World Cup's Mexico-South Africa game (9:30 a.m. ET Friday), the first of the 25 Cup games on the new channel, which will carry about 100 live events in its first year. While 3D sports has popped up in theaters and test broadcasts, ESPN's channel is the biggest effort so far to prod viewers to put on glasses to watch sports.
Besides 3D glasses, viewers need 3D TV sets and 3D service from their TV providers. Bryan Burns, ESPN vice president for strategic planning, can't say how many viewers are ready: "We, literally, don't know."
But Burns said for ESPN there's nothing particularly new about the 3D experiment: "This is deja vu all over again for us. If we'd created a three-ring binder for our high-def channel launch, we'd be pulling it off the shelf and going to the same tabs. It's scarily familiar."
The idea is viewers sitting down to watch TV usually sift through about a dozen favorite channels until they find something they like - making it hard for other channels to ever crack those rotations. High-def's arrival created a wide card: Early buyers, who paid $5,000 to $6,000 for early HD sets, understandably looked for HD shows - sometimes settling for ones they'd never normally watch.
ESPN, whose HD channel was only available in fewer than 1 million households when it launched in 2003, was willing to pay the higher costs of HD TV production to try to snare those at least temporarily adventuresome viewers. Now, with some 3D TV sets costing about $2,000, ESPN 3D is already available to 40 million households at launch.
But how many viewers will pony up for another pricey gadget? Shooting 3D TV costs more - you need two cameras for each shot, one for each eye - although ESPN won't do anything extra Friday: World Cup organizers, using their own announcers, will provide a world TV feed that includes the U.S.-Slovenia game on June 18.
"It's been a science project so far to see how we could produce 3D sports," Burns said. "Once we're on the air (today), we'll see how we can fly this plane faster and higher." And keep everybody's glasses from fogging up.