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ESPN is doing – gulp! – great job with World Cup

There are many reasons to take big swings at ESPN, which seems to invent new ways every day to make itself less and less watchable by people who value competition in the sporting world over drama, celebrity and other assorted folderol. The most recent LeBron-a-thon is a perfect example of the silliness. ESPN is using every possible commentator and cheerleader to “analyze” the unexaminable, down to having someone actually report that there is nothing to report.

Ridiculous.

As the behemoth continues to lumber along, crushing its competition and convincing a generation of fans that nothing before 1979 matters, it will remain vulnerable to ridicule by the sane.

However, for its work over the past month, ESPN deserves praise. That’s right, the folks in Bristol have done the World Cup just about perfectly. OK, so they haven’t been able to resist lying about game times by telling people that “coverage begins” 30 or 60 minutes before kickoff, the better to trick viewers into watching their pre-match shows. Even that isn’t so bad, since host Bob Ley is the consummate pro, and it’s great to wade through the various accents of the analysts sitting with him. (The exception is Alexei Lalas, who remains tough to take in large doses.)

Other than that, this has been a perfect sheet for ESPN. Its game coverage has been outstanding, and it has captured the World Cup ethos quite well. Even though the network has shied away from any kind of controversy in terms of the outrageous cost of the tournament in a country that doesn’t have resources to waste, and has chosen to present images that don’t depict the country’s crushing poverty, there is a sense of the party that surrounds the World Cup in just about every broadcast ESPN stages.

The announcers have been tremendous, creating a sense of the importance of the games while still providing enough technical analysis to make hard-core fans happy. It would be nice if they were a little more strident against the concept of flopping, but that behavior has become so engrained in the culture that it’s almost useless to rail against it. Nothing will likely change.

ESPN deserves credit for its World Cup Tonight wrap-up show that summarizes the day’s events, provides a look ahead and continues to put the whole thing into context. It’s a great way to end the day, and since most of the analysts aren’t trying to make names for themselves in the social media realm, they keep their comments on point and refuse to devolve into self-aggrandizement. You get soccer from them – and only soccer.

It’s refreshing to watch ESPN keep its focus so heavily on the game. The broadcasts move along smoothly and without a collection of promotional nonsense that can bog down other sports that it televises. Part of that is the nature of soccer, which doesn’t allow for continual commercials and self-promotion. Whatever the case, it’s a welcome departure from the usual.

With four games remaining (two semifinals, the third-place contest and the final), it’s virtually impossible for ESPN to mess this up. It will expand its pre-game coverage to a full hour, but it won’t ruin the games themselves. The great thing is that because the World Cup means so much to the nations involved, ESPN doesn’t have to manufacture hype, as it does in so many other instances. By letting the soccer stand alone, the hysteria is evident. The constant chanting and singing by the fans stands in stark contrast to so much of the manufactured excitement that characterizes other ESPN efforts, when it works hard to convince viewers that what they are watching is indeed important. Give ESPN credit for recognizing that soccer’s biggest tournament requires no artificial flavoring.

The question now is whether ESPN can apply what it has learned from the World Cup to its other broadcast properties. Can it understand that trying to make a regular-season NBA game into some sort of hardwood Armageddon is not only ludicrous but also irresponsible? Can it tone down its cross-promotional excess in its NFL broadcasts, the better to present the actual winning and losing as more important than the dramatic storylines it and the league want us to consume so hungrily?

The answer to both is probably no. ESPN has done a fabulous job with the World Cup, but it is a stand-alone, and Fox had better be ready to hit the upper 90 in four years when it takes over the telecasts. The standard has been set with this tournament, and ESPN has shown what it can do when it cares more about the competition and less about creating “compelling” storylines and manufacturing stars. This has been a great respite for fans, but there is less than a week remaining before the oasis evaporates.

And we go back to worrying about what LeBron James had for breakfast.

 

 

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