American broadcasters should learn from FIFA World Cup game coverage

The only ESPN influence during a World Cup game is the announcers. Literally every other aspect of the game presentation is controlled by FIFA.

It’s fascinating. It’s refreshing.

FIFA’s coverage is unique in sports because there is one video feed going out to the entire world – the broadcasters in different countries simply pay for the right to air it. If you flip from ESPN to Univision to hear a “Goooooooooaalll!” the pictures are exactly the same.

FIFA’s coverage is unique in sports because it has evolved very little over the past few World Cup, with the notable exception of the goal-line technology. A World Cup game in 2006 looks very similar to a World Cup game in 2014.

Yet, somehow, by not evolving it appears to have evolved right past American sports broadcasters – ESPN, CBS, Fox, NBC, etc. – in this country.

So what could American broadcasters learn from FIFA?

The focus is always on the game
When you watch a World Cup game for 90 minutes, the attention will be on a World Cup game for 90 minutes. I know this sounds obvious but it is almost never the case in American sports.

Take last night’s Spurs/Heat finale. With about two minutes to go in the game with the Spurs about win a fifth championship, Mike Breen inexplicably turned the focus to what the Heat will do in the offseason. That is legitimate discussion. It is not an legitimate discussion at that moment.

That is far from the only instance that American fans are watching a sporting event and being shown something else. How many mindless interviews has Fox subjected us to during baseball coverage with actors from shows that don’t last past November? How many times are we listening to a sideline reporter interview a family member during a game?

Again, those interviews can be worthwhile, but not in lieu of game action. If I tune in to a UConn/Florida basketball game, the reason is probably because I want to watch UConn and Florida play basketball.

Of course the worst offender is ESPN’s college football coverage where almost every telecast devolves into a debate about the Heisman Trophy, the BCS, polls or the strength of the SEC. I will never forget last year, as UCF was pounding Rutgers, that the announcers spent most of the fourth quarter talking about Ohio State.

The right replay at the right time
My favorite aspect of the World Cup game coverage has been the replays put forth by FIFA as they are astoundingly perfect. It feels like I watch the game, I think about a replay I’d like to see and it magically appears from FIFA. I have no idea who FIFA has as their game producer(s) but they should all teach classes to American broadcasters.

When there is an NFL instant replay challenge, it takes forever to get the right angle. They’ll show one. Then two. Then three. The announcers will hem and haw about the ruling. Then, out of nowhere, there will be a fourth and deciding replay from the correct angle that shows whether the player had two feet in bounds or if the ball was over the goal line.

Why can FIFA almost always get the right replay up first while it never seems that way in America? My working theory is that there are too many cameras in American sports focused on too many things while FIFA clearly is more focused with its camera work. This goes back to my first point about the focus being on the game.

No missed action
The first play of the second quarter in Game 5 of Spurs/Heat was an incredible alley-oop by Kawhi Leonard. If you saw it, you were squinting. Why? ESPN was airing an interview with Eric Spoelstra from between quarters in which he said the Heat had to keep playing good defense. It was illuminating for sure.

I watched a lot of soccer this weekend and I cannot think of one instance where I missed any game action. I do remember, during the Argentina game, where they quickly cut from a replay when Messi touched the ball – nowhere near scoring, but you never know – and it was jarring because FIFA was not going to even risk missing a bit of action.

The Oregon football team, first under Chip Kelly and to this day, will occasionally line up quick on an extra point and go for two to catch the defense by surprise. Even though they have a track record of doing this – television cameras almost always miss this. If another college football team does it, you always only see it on a replay.

All screen, all game
At the end of this year’s Indy 500, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay put on an IndyCar spectacular. For the final three laps, they passed each other, they pushed each other and they had anyone watching on the edge of their seats.

Of course, you would have be on the edge of your seats to see as ESPN decided to do a split-screen with the driver’s wives and girlfriends. Deadspin determined that 85% of the screen was devoted to something other than the race during those final laps.

During the World Cup, the replays are shown in lieu of game action and usually during a break. That means no split screens. No crowd shots taking space away from the game. You are focusing on one thing and only one thing.

That doesn’t even take into account the constant bombardment of stats and ads and the bottom line during sports coverage. Have you seen an NFL broadcast lately? Thanks to the rise of fantasy football, it feels like you’re watching CNBC instead CBS.

For a beautiful few hours on Friday afternoon, there was no ESPN bottom line anywhere. ESPN was showing the US Open golf tournament and the whole screen was showing golf. ESPN2 was showing Mexico/Cameroon and the whole screen was showing soccer.

ESPN used to only show scores twice an hour, with other broadcasters following a similar pattern. With the explosion of smart phones and Wi-Fi, maybe we go back to that? If I care about another score, I can find it without changing the channel. I don’t need to read the same scroll for three hours.

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Emotional slow-motion
FIFA’s use of slow-motion is so radically different than the United States and so much better. Yes, they do slow motion of action but what sets the World Cup apart is the slow-motion reaction of players and coaches to big moments.

After Messi scored his goal Sunday, there was an amazing shot of him running toward the crowd – in super-slow-mo – screaming and pulling down on his jersey, to show everyone who he was playing for. In that moment, any questions about Messi’s loyalty to his country versus his club were answered in the most poignant manner possible.

You rarely get that in American sports coverage because slow-motion is used the majority of the time – even more so for super-slow-mo – on the game. There is nothing wrong with that. But we are missing the emotion of sports. These games mean something to these players but, at times, it’s not properly being conveyed.

No star cams
One last dig at ESPN’s brutal NBA coverage as the network decided that the Spurs winning a fifth championship was the perfect time to do a Goodfellas long shot of LeBron James walking back to the locker room.

During the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final, you could go online to watch a camera devoted to following only one star player on each team.

Think about a Tim Tebow cam and shudder.

That doesn’t happen in the World Cup. The camera doesn’t focus on the star unless the star deserves it. It resonates because when you don’t see Messi for a while, it’s because Messi isn’t doing anything to merit your attention – and then you wonder why he isn’t.

And then suddenly, the star appears and scores a goal and all is right with the world. By not focusing endlessly on the star, it makes the star turn even more dramatic.

When you watch the World Cup, I want you to pay attention to how much different – and how refreshing – the game coverage is. The game is the thing, as it should be.

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  1. The only good thing about FIFA is the game broadcasts.


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