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World Cup Networks Discover That Few Are Following the Bouncing Ball

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, June 28, 1998; Page D12

The leaders were about to tee off in the final round of the U.S. Open in San Francisco this past Sunday, but that's not why a group of sportswriters had gathered around a television in the media center.

Sacre bleu, it was United States vs. Iran in the World Cup from France that had some American scribes clearly caught up in soccer fever.

The same can hardly be said for the rest of the country. The game, aired on ABC, earned a 4.8 rating, decent enough for any soccer contest on network television, but hardly cause for any great celebration by ABC or the people who still believe soccer has a chance to get decent ratings if only more Americans would give it a chance.

So far, ABC's soccer ratings for five games, two on weekday afternoons, are 2.4, about half of what they were in '94 when the Cup was played in the United States The cable numbers on ESPN and ESPN2 are 0.8, down 47 percent. As one ABC executive said, "It's not unexpected, especially with the U.S. team not doing well, but you knew that going in. We go into this with our eyes wide open."

The numbers for Thursday's meaningless game between the United States and Yugoslavia might have been higher than the 3.0 in the overnights in 40 major markets if the American team had stopped yapping about the shortcomings of their coach, beaten Iran and advanced to a must-win game to get into the second round. Instead, the numbers for the United States' 1-0 loss are yet another major disappointment for the advancement of the world's favorite game in a mostly uninterested America.

That really is too bad, because the competition — often accompanied by wild singing of "ole, ole, ole," the strains of bagpipes wailing or Mariachi bands blaring in the background — is mostly breathtaking. Still, many of the international players and their national teams are strangers to most of us, clearly one of the biggest drawbacks in attracting a large U.S. TV audience. And with the games aired at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. because of the time difference from France, the numbers just won't add up.

I've been trying to catch up on the World Cup this week, a rather easy task on ESPN and ESPN2, combining with ABC to air each of the 64 matches live and in its entirety throughout the month-long competition. The two cable networks are providing a first-rate 30-minute pregame show, with similarly informative studio shows at intermission and postgame.

Is it just me, or has wee Scotsman Tommy Smith already become something of a cult hero to avid Cup watchers? He's Dick Vitale with a burr, a change-of-pace delight, particularly on goals that go "right in the onion bag."

"This is becoming a South American darby," as in derby, he said before one game involving Paraguay, and he also has no qualms expressing strong opinions, especially involving soccer's world governing body. "FIFA have something to answer for," he said in commenting on widespread criticism of spotty refereeing in the early rounds. "They've brought in people who don't referee in high pressure situations."

ABC, meanwhile, has brought in Brent Musburger to host its studio shows. He's a veteran of high pressure games across the broad spectrum of American sport, but I thought he and his producers went over the line in pumping up United States vs. Iran last Sunday, especially a player feature that included footage of blindfolded American hostages and Iranians burning an American flag.

Musburger's breathless prediction confirmed his own unabashed American bias — "three-nil, U.S., all the way baby." And at halftime, soccer fans had to be cringing when he said "maybe Michael Jordan should put on some soccer shorts and get out there and finish for this team."

There also are times when ABC analyst Seamus Malin has come across as a haughty know-it-all aficionado talking down to the audience. And late in the game against Iran, he also was a U.S. apologist.

"The constant is still there," he said, "the battling qualities. But some nasty old ghosts have come back, the ghosts that you've got to finish." He didn't quite use the term "brave and plucky American lads," but he implied it by saying "it doesn't get reported that the U.S. was all over Iran tonight."

Play-by-play announcer Bob Ley also was spinning excuses at the bitter end.

"At the top of the show," he intoned, "we said that Iran's purpose was deeper and closer to the heart. They have played like that all night." Then later, "what this result will do around the world where American soccer has fought for respect, now it will take a step backward."

Musburger kept it up in the postgame as well.

"You can only imagine the headlines in Tehran tomorrow morning," he began. "Something like 'The Great Satan Gets a Soccer Lesson.'"

And you wonder why Musburger, once a Chicago newspaper sportswriter, switched to TV.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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