A farce, a mockery, the monster Mundial," a Rome correspondent called it. "The biggest disaster in the history of sports broadcasting," according to European TV agencies. It was Murphy's Law brought south of the border, a World Cup transmission snafu that only belatedly has begun to be cleared up.
Dozens of countries got video but no audio the first week of the tournament; others got neither. West Germany received Bulgarian commentary; Norway received German. The entire Far East heard NBC play-by-play man Charlie Jones. The U.S. heard Jones, too, but for the first two games he sounded as though he were talking under water. The only way NBC could get its audio out was to plug its microphones into a telephone and dial home collect.
Obviously the World Cup feed was one tamale that was too hot to handle for TeleMexico, the company responsible for broadcasting the tournament. ESPN expected to get the Soviet Union vs. Hungary for its first telecast June 2. With no warning, up came Argentina vs. South Korea. Partly because TeleMexico is charging broadcast companies a stiff $2,500 or more per game to position their own commentators at the stadiums, announcers for ESPN and SIN, the Spanish-language network carrying all 52 games in the U.S., are patching in commentary from studios in Toronto and San Antonio, respectively.
One measure of the depths to which the World Cup TV coverage has sunk: The most exciting thing about it is the way SIN announcer Tony Tirado calls goals in Spanish—on the rare occasion that a goal is scored, that is. Tirado, a 43-year-old native of Peru who once played goal in the North American Soccer League, sounds as though he's calling the llamas in after the sun goes down. Tony finds a monotone about half an octave up and howls "Go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-al!" for what seems like a minute and a half.
Still, if that's the highlight of Cup coverage on the tube, something is wrong. For this viewer and, I suspect, most other Americans, soccer is dreadfully dull to watch on TV. There must be something fetching about the game, or two billion people around the world wouldn't be getting ready to watch the World Cup final on June 29, but I can't see it. Only four soccer scores are known to exist: 2-0, 1-1, 1-0 and 0-0. It's b-o-r-i-n-g, and the ratings prove it.
NASL soccer failed miserably on CBS in 1967-68, averaging a 3.4. ABC tried it in 1979-80 and averaged a 2.6. For the early-round games of this World Cup the ratings are worse yet: 1.8 (1.5 million homes) for NBC; 0.6 (221,000 homes) for ESPN. Of course, those numbers also prove that in nearly two million American households, soccer is anything but boring. But that's 1% of the population.
For a generation American soccer advocates have said, "Just wait until all the kids playing soccer grow up and start watching the game on TV." Well, they have grown up, and they're watching football, baseball, basketball and MTV. Sure, a victorious U.S. team in the World Cup would turn millions into instant soccer fans, but only for the short term. The problem is cultural. For whatever sociological reasons, most American sports fans simply don't get a charge out of soccer on TV.
TV can't make dull games sparkle, but part of the problem lies with TeleMexico, which, it must be pointed out, lost many of its broadcast facilities in last year's earthquake. The company ought to be red-carded, however, for refusing to let foreign broadcasters like NBC bring in their own cameras and equipment. Left with the Mexican video feed alone, we don't get the closeups of players we've become accustomed to seeing. The replays, which zigzag hokily onto and off the screen in flying boxes, are selected indiscriminately, and they sometimes end before the crucial action comes up. And they don't believe in slow motion.
With that kind of an effort, why wouldn't America go zzzzzzzzzzzz?