By Breven Miller
December 10, 2019
Breven is a second-year undergraduate student at Bowling Green State University. Originally from Jackson Township, Ohio, Breven is a Sport Management major with a minor in Journalism. His interests lie in all sport, but he has a particular passion for football and soccer.
Soccer is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world. I don’t think you would find someone to refute that point if you tried, it’s pretty much common knowledge. Why is it though, that the rest of the world cares more about soccer than we do in the United States? Certainly there are a few reasons: our men’s national team has never been high quality (though the women’s team is consistently one of the best), our domestic league pales in comparison to one like the Premier League in England, and we arrived at the soccer party pretty late. These would all be pretty reasonable arguments as to why soccer isn’t as important in America. However, I want to bring a new idea to that table: that American media outlets (ESPN, I’m looking at you) don’t give soccer the attention that it warrants.
A great example of some questionable analysis from a specific ESPN employee about soccer came on Pardon the Interruption just before the Premier League started this past August. Of course, Pardon the Interruption features Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (most of the time) and airs every possible weekday on ESPN. Just before the Premier League began the current season, the two did a “preview” of the season (for clarity, Kornheiser was not on this particular showing, instead it was Frank Isola). To start, this was not a major headline in the show, signifying that the beginning of quite possibly the most popular soccer league in the world was merely an afterthought. I’ll focus on Wilbon in particular since Isola did some research and found some decent analysis to be had.
Wilbon began by picking Manchester United to win the Premier League this season. He cited the fact that they still have Paul Pogba and that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been there “a while.” Paul Pogba has only ever played to his full potential at Manchester United for small stretches, while I’m not too sure who would consider a half of a season to be “a while” if they understand how soccer clubs tend to handle managers. Beyond this, when Isola mentioned the Champions League and how Premier League favorites Manchester City might want to focus on winning said Champions League instead of focusing on the Premier League, Wilbon said, “Isn’t (the Premier League) the most prestigious league championship in the world in this sport?” Not only is that debatable initself, but not everyone can win the Premier League! The Premier League is just the English top division of soccer, therefore a team like FC Barcelona can’t win the Premier League (since they play in Spain). It’s pretty obvious here that one of the more influential analysts at ESPN has absolutely no idea how soccer functions internationally, which is one of the things holding soccer back in America.
I’ll give credit where credit is due: ESPN shows a decent amount of soccer. MLS games make it to the mainstream ESPN networks, along with some games from the Italian Serie A, and occasionally even the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) makes an appearance. Soccer even makes a fair number of appearances in SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. Where ESPN lacks heavily is in analysis, and what’s odd is that they used to give the analysis more airtime! ESPN FC used to be a show that ran fairly often on the ESPN networks. This was their soccer analysis show, and it does still run. However, it only runs on ESPN+, which is a subscription-based streaming service on top of what one might already be paying for ESPN. Adding to this is the fact that apart from the people working in the soccer department at ESPN, not many seem to have a lot of knowledge about the game or the players. If you watch SportsCenter, the only time you’ll ever hear about soccer is in the Top 10 Plays, and I would be willing to bet the analysis is slightly misinformed. A mispronounced name or two never goes amiss.
According to a 2018 poll, interest in soccer in America has gone up 27% since 2012. Six years is a really short time for that number to be so high, meaning that growth in interest is pretty steep. With that stat in hand, wouldn’t it only make sense for ESPN to start covering soccer more comprehensively? Would it not behoove the most well-known sports news network in America to at least become educated on the most popular sport in the world when it’s only gaining traction in their country? The way I see it, they might fall behind if soccer isn’t adopted soon. Oh and by the way: see what ESPN FC or any other soccer experts say about Manchester United’s chances at winning the Premier League, even before the season started.
They never had a chance and they still don’t. Thanks, Michael Wilbon.
Isola, F & Wilbon, M. (2019, August 8). Pardon The Interruption. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRvn9OJcGuA
LoRé, M. (2019, April 30). Soccer’s growth In U.S. has international legends buzzing. Forbes.com. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaellore/2019/04/26/soccers-growth-in-u-s-has-international-legends-buzzing/#5705c94117f1