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What ESPN Could Learn From ESPN: Euro 2012 Lessons For College Football

ESPN did a terrific job of covering Euro 2012 because they let the action in the tunnel and on the field tell the story, rather than trying to narrate excitement. The network could stand to take the same approach to college football.

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01:  Gianluigi Buffon of Italy sings the national anthem before the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01: Gianluigi Buffon of Italy sings the national anthem before the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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For the past five days, I have been going through Euro withdrawal. Over the course of that three-week tournament, I had a set pattern: come home from work, fire up the DVR to put a game on, watch my five-year old and three-year old get riveted by the national anthems, watch the first ten minutes or so with my boys while explaining my rooting interests (usually based around factors relating to Futbol Club Barcelona, past treatment of the Jews, or behavior during World War II) and listening to them come up with their preferences (usually based around characters from Cars 2), take in the rest of the game at night after everyone had gone to bed, and then process the match results that by reading write-ups on Zonal Marking (Michael Cox is the soccer equivalent of Chris Brown; if the two ever met, then that would be the sports version of crossing the streams in Ghostbusters) and then the following morning with The Guardian's daily podcast. I thoroughly enjoyed Euro 2012, from the opening match when Poland and Greece drew 1-1 before a packed, fevered crowd in Warsaw to the final in Kiev, where Spain chiseled a bull with cojones onto international soccer's Mount Rushmore, alongside Uruguay from the 20s, Italy from the 30s, West Germany from the 70s, and Brazil from the 90s. Given my allegiance to Barca, the fact that Spain's victory was driven by two Barca defenders,* two Barca midfielders, and two Barca forwards (while two injured Barca stars were watching from the stands) was especially pleasing.

* - OK, Jordi Alba has only signed with the club this summer from Valencia, but he came up through Barca's youth system and he shares a first name with Catalunya's patron saint. I'm claiming him.

I have been watching soccer since 1982, when seven-year old Michael watched the 1982 World Cup with my father and our Brazilian neighbor. The neighbor was not especially happy with this match, but I'll admit that starting off watching a sport with a tournament that featured a match that is now considered to one of the great encounters of all-time was a good start. As recently as 2004, the Euros were not on normal TV. Eight years ago, I had to go to Brewhouse to watch matches. This year, I could watch every match on one of the ESPN channels, along with pre- and post-match analysis. It's possible that I enjoyed Euro '12 so much simply because it was easily accessible.

Aside from the facts that the tournament was on "free" TV and a team that I support won, another reason why I liked the tournament was that ESPN did an excellent job of covering the event. For those of us who complain about ESPN emphasizing the "Entertainment" part of its name to excess or promoting blowhard controversy-meisters like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, the network's Euro coverage was a welcome tonic. Each match started with a short studio discussion, usually focusing on the lineup decisions made by the managers. Then, the actual game coverage would start with shots of the teams gathering in the tunnel, followed by their entrance onto the field, the national anthems, and then more discussion of the starting lineups before kickoff. The games were called on ESPN by a collection of professional announcers, led by the outstanding Ian Darke. Awful Announcing summed up the coverage best:

ESPN's accomplishments in covering international soccer the last four years can't be understated and Euro 2012 was another crown jewel. If Bristol covered everything with the intentionality, integrity, commitment, and excellence they do for international soccer, the network would be infinitely better across the board.

I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the shots of the players in the tunnel and then the national anthems. Aside from the fact that these shots were porn for my flag- and anthem-obsessed five-year old, I enjoyed this way of opening a game because it sets the mood just right. You see Cristiano Ronaldo shifting from foot to foot in the moments before coming out onto the pitch and you immediately get the tension of a man who is carrying a nation's hopes on his shoulders, not to mention his own personal duel to ascend beyond the station of second-best player in the world. You see Italy captain Gigi Buffon belt out every world of Fratelli D'Italia with his eyes closed* and you understand what these highly paid professionals feel about playing for their countries for a pittance. By the end of the anthems, you're ready to run through a wall for a country that you've probably never visited, which is about the right state to approach the experience of watching a sporting event.

* - By the end of the tournament, I am very familiar with Buffon's dental structure.

Tempering my enthusiasm at the end of Euro 2012 is the feeling that I wish that ABC/ESPN took the same approach to college football that it takes to major soccer tournaments. Compare my description of the start of a Euro match with the start to a normal college football game on ESPN. Whereas ESPN starts off Euro matches in the studio with a discussion of the lineup choices made by the managers, they start off college football games with Mark May and Lou Holtz getting into contrived fights or Jesse Palmer looking pretty. Whereas ESPN includes the pre-match pomp and circumstance when covering Euro matches, they ignore it almost entirely in college football. Instead, the approach is for the play-by-play and color guys to drum through the story lines for the game - story lines that they will stick to regardless of how the game actually plays out - and then maybe the viewer gets a five-second shot of Michigan players touching the banner or Clemson players rubbing Howard's Rock. Whereas ESPN shows the starting lineups for both teams in formation at the outset of each Euro match, they cannot be bothered to even list the starting lineups for college football teams anymore, instead showing only the "Impact Players," as if every word coming out of Matt Millen's mouth is so critical that he does not have time to list 44 starters.

In short, ESPN feeds both the mind and the heart in the first 15 minutes of covering a Euro match, while it does neither in the first 15 minutes of covering a college football game. If ESPN started Georgia-South Carolina by covering the entire rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra* and then discussed the teams' starting lineups and how they would match up against one another, both in terms of styles and in terms of individual matchups, then I would be a very happy camper and I suspect that most college football fans would be, as well.

* - Yes, I get the irony that I am using an actual ESPN clip to illustrate what I wish that ESPN would do. My point is that the opening to 2006 Tennessee-South Carolina was perfect and I wish that it were the rule for ESPN instead of the exception.

I become a European soccer obsessive because it is the sport that appeals to the same part of my brain that college football touches. For one thing, European soccer shares college football's emphasis on the regular season. For another, the passion at a big club or international match speaks to a person like me who grew up on SEC football. ESPN understands the former and works hard to transmit that passion as part of the viewing experience. ESPN also understands the latter, as evidenced by the fact that they put Gameday on college campuses. The guys in Bristol need to put two and two together and extend they way they do their morning pregame show to the way that they do their games.*

* - And yes, CBS could stand to learn the same lesson. I'd rather see the Golden Band from Tigerland than the mugs of Tony Barnhart and Spencer Tillman.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.