There was a time in America, if only for a day, when women's soccer drew more television viewers than the NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup finals.
The U.S.' victory over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final --perhaps you remember this cover -- averaged 17.9 million viewers on ABC, and the network estimated 40 million Americans tuned into the match at some point.
But women's soccer never again came close to such viewing levels. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) failed to draw ratings (or attendance) before folding in 2003. The current Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league is a low-key property on the Fox Soccer Channel. The six-team league has one exclusive national game weekly, airing at 6 p.m. ET every Sunday.
The last Women's World Cup, which was held in China in 2007, drew a collective shrug from the American public. The games averaged an 0.4 rating and 394,000 viewers for 11 matches on ESPN, and an 0.2 rating and 232,000 viewers for 21 games on ESPN2. If you want a modern-day comparison, the College Action Sports Championships (yes, that exists) drew an 0.3 last Saturday on CBS.
Can ESPN find an audience for this month's Women's World Cup in Germany? Well, it won't be for a lack of resources and promotion. ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3 (broadband) will air all 32 matches live and in high definition, including the final on July 17 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). The network has studio programming on site, as well as prematch, halftime and postmatch shows. ESPN is using its premier game caller (Ian Darke) on U.S. games and the final, as well as a thoughtful studio host in Bob Ley, a noted soccer devotee. (Thankfully, ESPN opted to send Ley as opposed to Chris Berman, lest the audience be subjected to puns involving blitzkrieg and gefechtsstan.)
ESPN is even utilizing a mobile studio (dubbed "Big Blue" for the colors on the 18-wheel truck) throughout the World Cup. The set will travel throughout Germany, including hosting programming from Berlin, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and three other cities.
While such programming is great for hardcore soccer fans -- and keeps ESPN in FIFA's good graces -- it provides no guarantee that the casual fan will tune in. How will ESPN evaluate whether its production is a success?
"There's always that twofold evaluation," said Jed Drake, the ESPN senior vice president and executive producer charged with running the World Cup coverage. "One is our intrinsic read on how we did as a production team. Then, inevitably in the end, more importantly will be our ratings. I do believe that the interest in the U.S. team is going to generate a lot of interest."According to the Sports Business Daily, Sunday's opener between Germany and Canada drew 953,000 viewers and an 0.6 U.S. rating on ESPN. The U.S. team was to open against North Korea on Tuesday (12:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) and will play Colombia on Saturday (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN). The network needs the U.S. team to go deep in this tournament to avoid a ratings catastrophe.
Regardless, one thing that ESPN must negotiate during the tournament is the line between commentary and advocacy. That's even trickier with a host of commentators -- Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kate Markgraf, Briana Scurry, Cat Whitehill and Tony DiCicco -- who had major roles on the national team.
"That is something we discuss internally a lot," Foudy said. "The last thing we want to do is not be true to the game. My approach has always been to give as objective analysis of a game as I can. You have some allegiances to the United States team and you always will, but at the same time my job is to give perspective how people are playing, or maybe if they need to be better in certain areas."
The tournament is already proving a television hit in one country: Germany. The country's state network ARD reported Monday that 14.09 million viewers watched the German women defeat Canada in the opener, shattering the women's soccer record when 10.48 million watched Germany beat Sweden in the 2003 final.
Dick Enberg announced earlier this month that this will be his 28th and final Wimbledon as a broadcaster. Later this summer, he'll call his final U.S. Open tennis tournament before he becomes a baseball-only broadcaster for the San Diego Padres. (The Open will be Enberg's 70th and final tennis major, a remarkable run for the sport.) Earlier in the week, I emailed Enberg, 76, some questions on television and tennis. Below, a quick Q&A:
SI.com: What are the most important characteristics a tennis play-by-play announcer should have and why?
Enberg: Since the recognizable stars are the analysts, the play-by-play person is required to give the nuts and bolts (score, aces, errors, etc.) and to personalize the athlete. Why should we care about them if we don't know their personal qualities? And how does that connect with history? That's my role.
SI.com: What does television do really well when it comes to tennis today?
Enberg: In my 32 years at Wimbledon [Enberg has attended 32], not much has changed -- better graphics, lower camera angles, super slow motion and tape machine replays -- but tennis speaks for itself. In fact, of all the TV sports, tennis needs announcers least of all. The sounds of the game and the umpire's call does it rather nicely. We should just try to stay out of the way. (Is this self-destructive to our careers?) Again, my role is to provide "sense of place." After all, Wimbledon and its famed Centre Court are a tennis history museum. Share it.
SI.com: What can television do better when it comes to tennis?
Enberg: What can we do better? Don't forget that the game, not the TV tricks, is of prime importance, not our faces, nor our words. The game, as the Bard wisely advised, is the thing.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is one of the most popular college basketball personalities on Twitter, and also part of a unique Twitter group: a person who follows no one. Of course, this was not always the case. Bilas initially followed Lady Gaga (he quickly decided it was a bad romance) and later followed Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart and several university compliance departments as a "lark." (Remember, it was Bilas who loudly proclaimed during Selection Sunday that VCU's inclusion in the tournament was indefensible.) So why has Bilas failed to click on the follow button? "I haven't yet devoted the time to figuring out how to use Twitter as a news-gathering tool," Bilas said in an email. "So far, it's just been something I use as an outlet to get a thought out. I have some friends that tell me they use their page as a method to get news, but I don't really get that. I just go to my current sites and newspapers and seem to do fine. Plus, I'm still learning etiquette, as I have been told that I tweet too much on some days and too little on others. I am slightly more advanced technologically than Jeff Van Gundy, but only slightly."
NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire has worked for Sports Illustrated, and this column is an admirer of his work, but his comments during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final -- he advocated that the Canucks organization keep Roberto Luongo away from the media -- were absurd given McGuire is a member of the media as an employee of NBC. It also smacks of high irony. As Buffalo News hockey writer Mike Harrington tweeted afterward: "Nice for Pierre McGuire to advocate the Canucks not letting Luongo speak to the media after this one. But if NBC wanted him, they'd get him."
Harrington is correct. When high-profile voices in the media advocate players not speaking with the media, it sends a terrible message to fans. In the end, Luongo ended up speaking with the media, which is what a pro does in both good and bad times.
CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell is one of the most active people on Twitter in the sports space, and if you follow me on Twitter, you know that Rovell and I have different philosophies when it comes to some of Twitter's nuances. We decided to have an open email exchange on it, and it runs verbatim here:
Deitsch: I'm glad you agreed to this exchange because I think it could provide some insight into how journalists use Twitter, or at least how they think about their tweets. I think you've done some great stuff crowd-sourcing through Twitter. Your polls are mostly amusing, and I can live with your occasional journey into Chris Berman self-aggrandizement land. (We're probably all guilty of that every now and then.) But let's get into it. I don't believe I've ever seen you RT someone else. I subscribe that the straight RT is the ultimate sign of Twitter respect. I can understand picking your spots, but you've made it a point never to retweet. Why not share someone else's genius with your followers, Rovell?
Rovell: First of all, that's not true. I've given straight RT's to people. Let's get to the point. Respect is giving someone credit. I outsource a tremendous amount of what I put out on my feed and I've never failed to give anyone credit. I know you differentiate on how I give credit, the straight RT, which puts the person's handle out front, vs. a via, which puts it at the end. So why do I put it at the end more often than not? Because I think I can write what they wrote better. That's not meant to be a pat on the back, but ultimately this is a communication tool and the fewer letters I can use and the clearer the point is, combined with how appealing it is of course, the more RT's it will get. If I change the copy, I can't RT someone, it's not their words.
I suppose you think a straight RT is a sign of respect because people are less likely to be left off and not given credit by someone after me if they are put at the end. I don't see it that way. As a conduit, my job is to pass on the information I filter in the best way to pass it on. If it can be clearer, more powerful and use fewer letters, I'd argue that my retweet, no matter where the credit goes, is more powerful and benefits the person I'm crediting. For what it's worth, I haven't had one person of the thousands I've credited in my tweets complain they were stiffed by where in the sentence I gave them credit. One last point, I'd argue a straight RT isn't why my followers follow me or why your followers follow your feed. They want your take. They want your stamp. I try to do that, while giving hat tips and "via"'s along the way.
Deitsch: Well, let's start with where we have agreement: Twitter is definitely about crediting the source. There's an unwritten rule that you should always cite the reference where you learned the information. I agree that part of the reason people follow both of us is because we are both repositories of stories, as well as provide a point of view. And I agree that shorter tweets provide the best mechanism for people to add commentary. But where I disagree with you is on process. A straight RT assures that the source will always be listed first and thus get the rightful credit. By putting the source always at the end, especially with someone who has as many followers as you do, I think the danger is the original source gets lost and that Darren Rovell ultimately gets credit by virtue of having the more powerful Twitter microphone.
I follow a lot of people who are brilliant with word construction so I can't honestly claim that a rewrite from me would always be better for my followers. Sure, my writer ego thinks that my words would be the most effective of all but I'm surprised you would say that it's an absolute given how many people you follow.
Rovell: The credit gets lost in a 140-character tweet? Nope. The credit gets lost when the people after me take off the credit when they RT me. And when their friend RT's them, guess who gets taken off if it's a link and not an original thought? Yep, you guessed it, me. I'd argue that I give credit more that most. Often, you'll see I'll acknowledge two people in a tweet -- the person who sent me the tweet and the person who originally found it or made it. I'd like to think that the reason people like to follow me on Twitter is not only for my take, but because they feel like I am a good aggregator of information.
The Twitter RT is the modern-day answer to getting your letter to the editor published in the paper, and it was common practice to put the writer of that letter at the end. One more point since you have created this "respect" angle. Have you done any studies to find out whether people get more follows if they are given an RT at the beginning versus a via at the end? I'd suspect that the number of followers picked up from getting retweeted in any order of letters has to do with the total distribution and how good of a Tweeter you are when people click on you to consider. I'd guess it has less to do with where in the sentence you are given the credit. That's why I think the idea that how I credit counts less doesn't hold water.
Let me add one an example to give people a better understanding of why I do what I do. This morning, I saw a great item from Busted Coverage. This is how it was written: "RT @bustedcoverage: What happens when you try to buy a Chapter 11 Dodgers jersey this morning from MLB.com." Leaves me 13 letters to comment if I do a straight RT. This is how I wrote it: "MLB doesn't let fans get a "Chapter 11" Dodgers jersey http://bit.ly/mKFyo8. (via @bustedcoverage)." My way leaves the person who passes it on 43 letters. I'm providing the person who passes it on great value by giving them a chance to say more.
Deitsch: I know we're going to continue this debate in the future so I'll bring it to a close since we both agreed on keeping the length reasonable. I will say that I've found the best way to get followers is when respected people send out a note that says I vouch or vet this person as a great follow. I don't think FF have any weight, and I'd argue that few people pick up followers from a via or reference at the end. Let's end on this: If you had to be reduced to one follow, who would it be? For me, it's @Big_Picture, the photo essay feed from The Boston Globe. It never fails to produce great content.
Rovell: Totally agree. Follow Fridays do very little. In fact, I've never done one for that reason. I'm following more than 1,000 people, so I'm going to cop out on this one. If I could only follow one person, I wouldn't be on Twitter. The great joy of this "machine" is hearing all the voices.