Soccer will drown channel surfer WORLD CUP-USA 1994

RADIO-TV

June 17, 1994|By RAY FRAGER

Did you suspect soccer was un-American? If so, here's your proof: no commercials.

That's right, the World Cup will be televised commercial-free on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. When they kick the ball off -- some kickoff, they don't even use a tee -- to start each half, there will be no scheduled commercial breaks until the end of the half.

What kind of television is this? We all know that only PBS goes without commercials. And we've all known for a long time just how un-American those people are.

How am I expected to watch this? Without commercials, I won't know when to zap to another channel. I might end up just !B watching and watching soccer. . . . Ah, quite clever, these soccer people.

World Cup '94 begins today, with coverage of Germany-Bolivia on ESPN at 2:55 p.m. and Spain-South Korea on ESPN2 at 7:25 p.m. Sponsors will get their messages across in pre-game, halftime and post-game programming, and "gold" sponsors get their logos attached to the game clock superimposed in the upper left of the screen.

ABC is carrying nine games, including the U.S. opener tomorrow 11:35 a.m. (channels 13, 7) and the final on July 17 (though Channel 13 may schedule "It's Academic: The Early Years" and "Gidget Goes American Gladiator"), ESPN has 29 live games and ESPN2 seven live telecasts. In addition, ESPN and ESPN2 are carrying a combined 13 tape-delayed games.

But will a lot of people be watching? Some of the advance press has been skeptical.

"It's an easy sport to be satirical about," said Bob Ley, one of ESPN's play-by-play men, "to show highlights of people chasing the referees.

"But if the United States beats Switzerland [in the Americans' opener], you will have to duck from all the bodies jumping on the bandwagon."

"I gave a little motivational talk to volunteers in Foxboro [Mass.]," said ESPN and ABC analyst Seamus Malin, "and the biggest cheer I got was when I said, 'We're not going to let the know-nothing journalists ruin this.' "

(On behalf of all know-nothing journalists -- and I think most of you know how qualified I am to speak on their behalf -- let me say that I do not harbor any ill will toward Umbro shorts.)

Bandwagon-jumping aside, Ley said success for the U.S. team will be important to only a percentage of the audience.

"The World Cup is coming in as a commercial and financial success," he said. "For the people who are just zapping among 70 channels" -- my public! -- "it's important [that the U.S. team do well]. The realistic goal is to make the second round."

Playing Switzerland in the opener in Pontiac, Mich., could be a big step toward that goal.

"It's no mistake we're playing the most ethnically homogenized team in Michigan," Ley said. "The last time I checked, there's not a big Swiss enclave in Michigan."

A good thing, too. Think of all the extra metal detectors needed to prevent a stray army knife or two from sneaking in.

Meanwhile, the announcers will have to walk the line between educating the soccer novice and informing the soccer fan.

"We're talking to people who come to the table with some soccer knowledge," Ley said.

Then again, there are others of us who come to the table with little more than a bowl of popcorn and a cream soda.

"You don't want to insult the people who know the game by being a schoolteacher," Malin said. "At the same time, there are some puzzlements when it comes to tactics and strategy."

In the end, though, how the World Cup plays on TV likely will depend on how it plays on the field.

"A good goal is a good goal," Ley said, "and that sells itself. We're a prisoner of one thing: the quality of play. If the games are scoreless ties with 40 fouls, you'll have even the dedicated fan flip over to QVC."

And if the games offer high-level entertainment, perhaps the only reason we'll be flipping over to QVC will be to order a pair of Umbros in Brazilian colors.

Technically speaking

World Cup telecasts are being primarily produced by European Broadcast Union Sports International, with American broadcasters enhancing the coverage for the U.S. market. EBU uses a minimum of 12 cameras per game, including remote ones positioned inside the top of each goal. ABC and ESPN will add remote cameras behind the goals or at midfield, offer a reverse angle, super slow motion replays and telestrators.

WORLD CUP ANNOUNCERS

ABC

Studio: Desmond Armstrong, Jim McKay.

Play-by-play: Al Trautwig, Roger Twibell.

Analysis: Rick Davis, Seamus Malin.

ESPN, ESPN2

Play-by-play: Bob Carpenter, Ian Darke, Jim Donovan, Randy Hahn, Bob Ley, Twibell.

Analysis: Clive Charles, Davis, Ty Keough, Malin, Bill McDermott, Ron Newman, Peter Vermes.

1% Note: Announcing teams will vary.

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