Now that you can seeHow you groove with me What else can I do To get closer to you
We both are here to have the fun So let it whip
- NBC Sports, as interpreted by the Dazz Band (because the Devo reference was too easy, and the Liz Phair reference too 90's)
About four hours into Rivalry Week, I had a post going about how funny it would have been if there had been ten hours of MLS coverage on NBC Sports, and not a single goal.
Yes, goalless draws can occasionally be intense and dramatic. Hold that thought.
Then came what my DVR called The MLS Whip Around Show, and what the network called MLS Breakaway.
I had to remind myself that this wasn't actually anything new. The show's direct ancestor is the NFL Red Zone, and the concept probably goes back to the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. The format is the alternative answer to "How do we decide which game to show?" - the answer being, all of them.
It wasn't perfect, by any means. For that, blame the beautiful game. By Saturday evening, Arlo White, Kyle Martino and Russ Thaler must have been pondering NFL football with seething jealousy. Cutting into games that take long, delicious pauses in between plays, where everything is timed meticulously, where by definition of the "Red Zone" title you don't need to pay attention until one team gets close enough to score...absolute child's play compared to juggling soccer games.
It also benefits the casual observer at the expense of the diehard fan, but presumably the Earthquake partisan was watching the Crew game on a different outlet, and not sitting their resentful of sharing his space with three other games he or she cared less about. Much better to get a taste of the Impact-TFC game than nothing at all, though.
Yes, it was frustrating occasionally seeing five minutes of nothing going on in Chester, before cutting back to New York in mid-sentence. That's going to happen less often, but it can't be eliminated - not in a game with constant action. Those of you who watch soccer to immerse yourself in the flow and psychology of a match...well, here are some long-form highlights instead.
Thaler, Martino and White will also benefit much less often from the March Madness factor - blowouts in MLS are much less likely than in the first round of the NCAA tournament. When CBS or TNT (or whoever, I've lost track) says "We're cutting away from Duke-Oberlin because the Supreme Court has outlawed televised executions," that's done not for the viewer as much as the broadcasters and technicans. One less game to worry about, and more resources for all the other stuff that's going on. MLS is not going to give that opportunity that often - even MLS blowouts tend to get out of hand in the final minutes, so Whipaway would me more, not less, likely to show fans the carnage. And they would still have to worry about a game where something was still at stake.
The Whipaway format also takes mitigates some of the league's manufactured publicity - when a goal is scored, it's on the "highlights" show, right then and there, for a wide audience of fans. There's only so much time to talk talk talk about whichever Designated Player before they have to cut away to an MLS player actually accomplishing something. That's a significant benefit - stars can come from anywhere.
Well, at least goalscorers, and to a lesser extent keepers who specialize in big saves. Goalkeepers who were in the right position, defensive midfielders cutting off the passing lane, defenders cancelling the attack before it can develop...this format won't do those players any favors. Then again, if you wanted to be famous, why did you become a defender in the first place?
But you know what else we saw - commercials. They finally figured out a way to avoid going forty-five minutes plus stoppage without ads.
Now, like all of you, I pray daily for the overthrow of capitalism and all its works - but here finally is the way for sponsors to assert themselves as much as they do in lamestream American sports...and be charged as such. Which, if we accept that a professional league needs money to survive, and that more sponsors are good, is a blessing. It seems idiotic, but missing four games while the commercials are going is less annoying than missing just one. After all, the show promises you won't miss anything important.
Yes, I know, it's all important. But this is a show for casual fans (or for those of us who have finite amounts of time to watch teams we don't support).
On the other hand, NBC will need that sponsor money, because this is a difficult show to produce. Not necessarily from a technical standpoint - it's pretty much the technology to change channels. It's more the manpower and expertise. People have to watch those games, and quite carefully. Even experts can't tell where the next goal is coming from, and making the call on which game to show live - well, I hope for their sake Motrin signs up as a sponsor.
The onscreen presenters have to work at least four times as hard, probably more. Thaler was very open about saying when he was handed relevant information, which did several things. One, it showed how hard and quickly the people behind the scenes were reacting on the fly. Two, it was great seeing a presenter not pretend he knew all this stuff off the top of his head - that actually added to Thaler's reliability. Three, it added an immediacy and intensity to the proceedings, like late returns were coming in from a crucial precinct.
In a lot of other sports, the studio presentation is fluff at best. There's no relaxing on this show while the games are on. It's a high-wire act. And that's why I'm not even thinking about whether I liked it or not, although I liked it a lot. I'm thinking about whether I watched the future of American soccer, or American sports. This is an amazing way of getting new fans in to the sport, quickly.
This is why leagues and networks haven't been doing this all along - it's a great idea, but it needs a large fanbase, and it asks a lot from its participants. Seriously, picture Skip Bayless doing this crap.
NBC has been back in the soccer broadcasting business for, I don't know, fifteen minutes, and they've made breakthroughs that Fox and ESPN didn't in many years. I apologize for the reservations I had about MLS potentially alienating Fox and Disney.
And it's certainly nice to have something optimistic to write about, what with my favorite team gagging away an ugly victory after being up a man unfairly in front of less than 20,000 fans while the team's ownership has gone full soap opera and all. Oh, but it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, so the fans stayed away, because fans hate seeing games in nice weather. Praying for hail against the Rapids Saturday.