Broadcast restrictions on highlights forced ESPN to get creative with their coverage of the World Cup. But is it a successful solution?

By Jacob Feldman
July 10, 2018

Croatia defeated host-country Russia in a World Cup quarterfinal on penalty kicks Saturday at the end of a dramatic, back-and-forth match. That night, SportsCenter gave the game 90 seconds of airtime. But at least that was better than the treatment England got after advancing to its first semifinal in 28 years—anchor Doug Kezirian and analyst Taylor Twellman discussed that result for 30 seconds on a broadcast dominated by midseason baseball and NBA Summer League highlights. After the two countries face off in Wednesday’s semifinal, they can expect to receive similar time on America’s top sports show. This is SportsCenter … without enough soccer. But fans shouldn’t direct too much ire at ESPN.

The network has long been accused of prioritizing coverage for the leagues it partners with as broadcaster. But this summer, execs wanted to highlight the global game, even with Fox Sports holding the broadcast and digital rights. There was talk of one-hour World Cup shows to end each day of the tournament, as well as additional live shows on Twitter. Then Fox sent out the list of restrictions other broadcasters would have to abide by. As Jonathan Tannenwald reported, ESPN “can’t show game footage on any of its studio shows or on its website, and SportsCenter is limited to two minutes of highlights per show—and only from 6 pm. to midnight ET.” So producers had to get creative.

Courtesy of Taylor Twellman

For Scott Van Pelt’s midnight edition, lead producer Tom DeCorte remembers considering hiring a courtroom sketch artist to draw the action that they couldn’t show. The crew also contacted a guy on Twitter who draws sketch recaps of soccer matches, but he’d already been hired elsewhere for the summer. Than Van Pelt threw out a suggestion: Why don’t I just have my five-year-old daughter draw something? #DrawtheWorldCup was born.

During the first segment, Twellman told Van Pelt, “I bet you I draw better than your daughter,” and then he went out to prove it. Twellman bought a pack of 24 Crayola crayons and another set of 10 Crayola markers. He spent most of the time between matches, as well as the first half of the second match each day, crafting his creations, sometimes placing pieces of paper up against his computer screen to sketch a specific design. Damien Woody or Jeff Saturday or Adrian Wojnarowski would see him “working” and chuckle, but ultimately, the product impressed.

“The day he started drawing stuff,” DeCorte said, “I was like, Wow, you are actually pretty good at drawing. That energized the segment even more and it became a thing after that.” Each night, Van Pelt would see Twellman’s drawing for the first time on-air, then the two would look at photos sent in online before diving into the details of the match. That last part was important to make sure soccer fans always felt the show was taking the sport seriously, said DeCorte, who has worked with Twellman in the past but was glad to show a different side of the soccer analyst this time around.

“Because we haven’t shown a lot of highlights, it’s opened people up to his personality and his creativity,” DeCorte said. “People are being exposed to that side of him, which is really good for us and for him.” Van Pelt told Twellman last week that the segment would be ending prematurely as SVP is now on vacation. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Twellman said. “Both of us were kind of sad.”

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Work. 🤷🏼‍♂️🤡 #DrawTheWorldCup

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On another show, Twellman broke down key moments from the game via LEGO recreations, though that development process proved too labor intensive after a couple days. John Buccigross did a soccer segment while laying down, his way of showing viewers what it had been like to watch Neymar dramatize contact on the field. Other shows have taken a more traditional approach, relying on clips of teams practicing, still photos, or fan reaction videos. (In England, where several stations are facing similar restrictions, Sky Sports News has turned to the bus shot).

With a strong grip on the rights, Fox Sports has drawn more than 20 million viewers on Snapchat, and its short recaps of each game have garnered nearly 60 million views across various platforms. Fox Sports did not respond to a request for comment on its sharing decision. The network is also posting every goal on Twitter—tweets that Twellman has retweeted himself to comment live on the action. But on TV, he is often asked to analyze the game while the camera stays on him. Amidst a string of 14-hour workdays, that has made him a face of the tournament for ESPN, and also a frequent recipient of feedback as the event comes to a close. For the first several days, he often had to explain to fans why ESPN was limited. But that gave way to banter with players, general managers, and even MLS owners over his various drawings.

Twellman was initially concerned that ESPN might cut soccer coverage even more drastically without much access to highlights. “We’ve done more than I thought we would, to be honest,” he said. That would have been a grim picture.

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