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All eyes on Pied Piper

ESPN could have eased breathless coverage of Becks

Posted: Sunday July 22, 2007 2:32AM; Updated: Monday July 23, 2007 11:38AM
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The presence of celebs like Katie Holmes (and future stars Cruz Beckham, left, and Suri Cruise) gave David Beckham's MLS debut a Hollywood feel.
The presence of celebs like Katie Holmes (and future stars Cruz Beckham, left, and Suri Cruise) gave David Beckham's MLS debut a Hollywood feel.
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The panting started roughly 1.5 seconds into the telecast when ESPN's Rob Stone described David Beckham's American debut with an intro fit for a Jackie Collins novel: "In a town where celebrity rules," Stone said, "today David Beckham is the Pied Piper of Hollywood's star scene."

The Pied Piper played 16 minutes Saturday night but those 960 seconds helped bail out ESPN from an Ishtar-sized debacle. Coverage of the soccer friendly between Chelsea and the Los Angeles Galaxy wasn't a night for soccer purists. It was heavily slanted to curiosity seekers with Stone and co-host Julie Foudy playing the king and queen of the Beckham welcoming committee. Both breathlessly offered example after example of Beckham's impact and global power. (At one point Foudy exclaimed that her mom told her "this is the craziest thing I have ever seen!") We'll presume Foudy's mother wasn't on line for the new Harry Potter book.

Naturally, you expected some hype but the moment occasionally got the better of the hosts, especially Stone who declared that "there is no debating that he is one of the greatest soccer players ever." Well, one might debate that Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, Zinédine Zidane, Franz Beckenbauer, Ronaldo, Lev Yashin, Carlos Alberto, Marco van Basten, Paolo Maldini, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Gordon Banks, Eric Cantona, Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus, Gerd Müller, Eusébio, Bobby Charlton and arguably 40 other players would top Becks on any non-Rob Stone list. That's not to say Beckham isn't a good player. He is a very good player. But by the start of the actual game, I was convinced that Beckham could end global warming as well as the feud between Rosie and Donald.

The game was preceded by a one-hour informercial (David Beckham: The American Dream) that lacked the kind of journalism one might see on Frontline but provided plenty of Beckham soundbites. "I've always loved America," said Beckham, sounding like a cross between John McCain and Barack Obama. "I've always loved the American people." The show revealed that Becks would love another child and is starstruck by the likes of John Travolta and Kelly Preston.

Reporter Bonnie Bernstein provided news from the red carpet and celebrity row, which offered her an opportunity to utter the phrase "Tom-Kat" and interview the likes of Jennifer Love Hewitt, who called the 1-0 game "better than any movie premiere." (Alas, I was hoping Bernstein would ask Love Hewitt about Michael Vick. No dice.)

Not all the celebrity interviews were dreck. Actor Drew Carey, a genuine soccer diehard and amateur photographer who has taken soccer photos for Sports Illustrated, was clearly more interested in the game and could barely focus on the interview. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered an interesting dissertation on the sport.

ESPN assigned 19 cameras to the game as well as a Beckham-cam focusing on every move the Pied Piper made. (ESPN 360 had its camera trained on Beckham all night). The Beckham-cam first came on at 9:11 p.m. EST and showed a shot of Beckham sitting on the bench. Scintillating stuff. But when the network got down to soccer, they had some nice moments. The extra cameras offered intriguing looks and analyst Eric Wynalda smartly pointed out for viewers that it was worth watching how Landon Donovan would do under the glare of Beckham. (Not well, at least in this game.) Best of all, Wynalda kept wondering when Victoria Beckham's glasses were coming off, a moment of welcome sarcasm for the common fan. Prior to the broadcast ESPN's coordinating producer for remote production Tom McNeeley said his network helped create the frenzy "but I think deservedly so because David Beckham is a well-known worldwide figure."

Fair enough. And we have to give credit where credit is due. Stone offered viewers a terrific moment of honesty by admitting during the broadcast that MLS ratings have been flat this year. (ESPN's MLS coverage has averaged an 0.2 rating this season.) At halftime he also called the Beckham coverage "a lovefest," a nice bit of levity from his network's hype. To wit: As Beckham started to warm up on the sideline in the second half, play-by-play announcer Dave O'Brien said there could be "a Willis Reed kind of effect" when Beckham entered. Then, perhaps realizing the zaniness of such a statement, he quickly explained it was not quite the same setting. (Indeed, Katie Holmes was not at Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.)

Becks finally came in the 78th minute and O'Brien offered an elegant call "Flashbulbs everywhere because the Beckham era has begun at last." The 19 cameras were able to pick up the game's signature moment: Beckham falling to the turf during added time. ESPN was late to return to the action when showing Beckham's fall but understandably so.

The network's rating for Beckham's debut will be among its best for MLS but the challenge will be whether they can keep a couple of the curiosity seekers. "We know we are ratings-challenged with soccer and we know there is going to be a spike with this game," said McNeeley. "We hope that when he is featured in other telecasts, we have people that want to tune in."