TYSON HILGENBERG - Tuesday, June 11, 2013
The blue track and cement ramps leave a lasting impression. It is the identifying characteristic of Jamaica's home stadium.
"The Office", as they call it, and the venue for the U.S. Men's National team World Cup qualifier in Kingston, Jamaica last Friday. It's a stadium built for track and field, as is understandable, being that the country's sporting fame is built on sprinters, not soccer players. But it places the fans at a distance from the action, almost as an afterthought. The same way I felt after watching the game. An afterthought.
beIN Sport is the network that aired the game. They decided to send two halftime/post-game "reporters" (term used loosely), instead of the two in-game commentators. The play-by-play commentary was done from a remote studio in south Florida, which only enhanced the feeling of disconnect you already feel when watching a soccer game in another country, especially one in a dimly lit track and field facility.
beIN Sport has the rights to all USMNT 2014 World Cup qualifiers not played in the United States. ESPN only has the rights to the games played on U.S. soil. It is an unfortunate arrangement that forces beIN Sport onto our televisions. A situation that defused my excitement for the game. Not enough for me to miss it, of course, but for the not so ardent of fans, maybe.
With a venue already ill fitting for a World Cup qualifying game, we are forced to watch it on a network ill fitted for broadcasting. Yes, broadcasting. That is the one thing they are supposed to be able to do properly. The video quality is not as good as ESPN and the on-air commentators are clunky and second rate. Their all white studio is reminiscent of a 90's nightclub, or an IKEA inspired living room. Their play-by-play guy is frustrating and the crew they have in the studio is a fumbling mess. Their resident soccer expert, Cobi Jones, is decent and gets the job done but still needs to find that ease of conversation in his analysis. He should watch an ESPN telecast with Steve McManaman and Ian Darke to learn how it's done.
beIN Sport's goal is admirable. Their product is not. Granted, they have improved operations since the pair of clumsily broadcasted games last September. They were admittedly newborn babies when they aired their first USMNT game.
So, I expected better this time. However, on Friday they cut away from the game to show full-frame highlights of the Paraguay vs. Chile game. As they did that we missed a shot on goal. Why they didn't stay with picture-in-picture I have no idea. Now, not a big deal, but if we would have missed a goal it would have been a big deal. It showed their lack of experience as a network.
More upsetting than that is the two on field reporters they sent to get us tantalizing tidbits from the ground. They were uncomfortable to watch. Temryss Lane, one of these reporters, is great, until she begins to speak. You never know what mix of adjectives she's going to slur together. Someone needs to give her a script and have her stick to it. The broadcast was more in line with that of a high school football game. The American soccer fans need better. Sports fans will demand better.
A network committed to broadcasting soccer, minus the occasional handball game, is a great thing, but it needs improvement. American sports fans are used to a pristine HD image, perfect and innovative on-screen graphics, and competent commentators. None of which beIN Sport has displayed as of yet.
This is not a complaint solely against beIN Sport, or that they are broadcasting the games. I don't care who airs the games, as long as the broadcast is high quality. Other networks could have fought for the rights to these WCQ games. Fox Soccer, NBC, and ESPN all either didn't want to pay for the rights or simply didn't find the games significant.
The host federations maintain the broadcast rights for these international games, so US Soccer has no power in the negotiations. Therefore, beIN Sport should be lauded, if for anything, ensuring that these USMNT away games will be televised in the U.S.
How and where games are broadcast is important to the progress of the sport in America. Tactical formations and pontifications on how the USMNT should play, or arguments of who should play central defense are important, but the bigger picture is far more interesting, in my opinion.
Television broadcasting is relevant in the bigger picture because it tells us how the game is viewed and accepted by the general public. NBC recently acquired the rights to the English Premier League (in the U.S), yanking them away from the dying hands of Fox Soccer. beIN Sport, oddly enough started by Al Jazeera, has also swooped in and obtained the American rights for La Liga in Spain and Serie A in Italy. Broadcast rights that were also previously held by Fox Soccer.
This says a couple things. A specialty channel devoted to soccer cannot compete in the market place. That part is a little disheartening. What it also says though is that the bigger networks want a piece of it. That part is good. That means there is sufficient evidence that NBC can make money on soccer. There are enough viewers, or potential viewers in the U.S. to make it worth the $85 million per season they will pay to the English Premier League. A company like NBC would not get in the mix if they couldn't make money.
The troubling issue is a network that has been in the soccer business for many years has just been gutted by a new "mostly" soccer network (beIN Sport) and of course the big cats at NBC.
The NBC acquisition of the English Premier League is good for the state of soccer. It will bring the game to more eyeballs, and probably with a higher level of broadcast quality than Fox Soccer. What we might lose is a little of that passion, that sort of all or nothing attitude that Fox Soccer exuded. A reverence for the sport. Something I appreciate.
As of now, beIN Sport is an unproven entity and not a good promoter for soccer in the U.S. It has essentially mimicked Fox Soccer, but is years behind in experience. It's just another Fox Soccer channel, but the broadcast quality and on-air personnel are inferior, and now we have to go somewhere else for the English Premier League.
The positive is that this relatively new network is dedicated to soccer. So, the frustration with having to watch the game on a sub par network is not only angled at beIN Sport, but also at the other networks for not finding these WCQ games important.
There are many factors that helped beIN Sport acquire the rights for these WCQ games, including international relationships, and contacts they set up in advance of their launch, but if ESPN wanted the rights, I'm sure they could have obtained them.
What about Major League Soccer? Could that be the next acquisition for beIN Sport?
The state of soccer broadcasting in the U.S. is in flux, and I'm not sure the networks know exactly where it is going. There seems more interest in reaching a larger audience, which is great.
It is also evident that what's important is an expertise in broadcasting, not the actual sport. I would argue ESPN could broadcast any sport or event with excellence. They have the experience and make a point to find the best people in the business. A few years ago they barely touched soccer, now they do it better than anyone else. I'm sure NBC will match them. They know how to do the job at hand - A quality broadcast that shows soccer in the best light and succinctly gives the viewers information.
All I want is to sit down and watch a game with good commentary and play-by-play, decent picture quality where the players on the field are decipherable, and in-studio pundits who have something interesting to say.
One might consider this complaining, but it is with stringent expectations that we make things better.