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Sunday, April 1, 2007

ESPN Admits To "Dumbing Down" Broadcasts

Rob Stone, a very talented and respected broadcaster, was recently quoted in the St. Petersburg Times. Mr. Stone does play-by-play for ESPN soccer broadcasts. He was interviewed by Brandon Wright about a variety of soccer-related themes. I would like to post one question, along with his response.

"Do you feel like you have to "dumb down" your broadcasts sometimes for viewers who may not have a strong soccer background?

Absolutely. That's a constant conversation we have at ESPN all the time. We're trying to make the sport grow, so if we aggravate hard-core fans every now in the process of trying to reach millions, then sorry. In a way, we're trying to sell the sport and bring people in." (1)

You don't grow the sport, or anything else, by lowering the bar. You grow and promote a sport by raising the standard. ESPN does not "dumb down" any other sport. Especially extreme sports where there may be only a "hard-core" following. Until the media in this country accepts and understands that the standard should not be different, they will fail to "convert" anyone to the soccer bandwagon.

ESPN, along with the MLS, needs to educate first, and worry about offending anyone secondarily. They should not alienate what is deemed to be the "hard-core" fan base that turns to Spanish language broadcasts to hear better commentary.

Mr. Stone took my World Cup History Test in 2002. I wrote it for Brainbench.com, and was pleased that someone from ESPN/ABC took the test. He is a good man dedicated to the sport, and especially to youth soccer. But in my humble opinion, before he and others at ESPN discuss dumbing down, they need to re-evaluate what their mission should be as broadcasters. Or, as educators, as I would like to think of their purpose.

We have seen the results of "dumbing down" in our society. Soccer is the world game. Anyone new to the sport needs to learn its language. It is not a complicated game. Casual fans will not be watching a USA v. Guatemala friendly on a Wednesday night in March. Does the NFL ever dumb down their broadcasts to attract new viewers to the sport? It would not be accepted or tolerated. "That guy who throws the ball is like the #10, that Maradona player, in your soccer/futbol."

Raise the bar, ESPN, and educate the audience. As you do for your Champions League broadcasts. Don't underestimate the North American fans. When you take a college course in Spanish, does the instructor use Klingon because most of the class said they were Star Trek fans? ;-) Part of the problem is the arrogance of the US media as it relates to the sport of soccer. They make the illogical assumption that soccer is so complicated that new viewers can't understand proper commentary. Dumbing down = ignorant new viewers - knowledgeable older viewers + lesser ratings = Increased viewership for Univision, Telefutura, and Telemundo in North America.

During the World Cup, a strange thing happened. English-speaking viewers preferred Spanish language coverage to what was available with ABC/ESPN:

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said on Monday: "It's surprising. This is a country that is not all that friendly even to subtitles. But somehow they found the Univision coverage so much better that they could overlook the fact that it was in a different language." (2)

"... Univision said that 50 million people tuned in to some part of its coverage, including 29 million Hispanics and 21 million non-Hispanics." (3)

References

(1) US Future, DJ and Ferrell: St. Petersburg Times, 24 March 2007.
(2) Univision scores in World Cup viewing - Financial Times - MSNBC.com (Unfortunately, this link is no longer active. I read it last summer, and sent the link, along with the quoted material, to someone via email.)
(3) World Cup Final Scores For ABC, Univision: TV.com, 11 July 2006.


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