Women's World Cup searches for audience
The challenge for ESPN's coverage of the Women's World Cup? Finding viewers
The 1999 World Cup final drew 17.3 million viewers in the United States
Dick Enberg checks in during his last Wimbledon as an announcer
There was a time in America, if only for a day, when women's soccer drew more television viewers than the NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup finals.
The U.S.' victory over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final --perhaps you remember this cover -- averaged 17.9 million viewers on ABC, and the network estimated 40 million Americans tuned into the match at some point.
But women's soccer never again came close to such viewing levels. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) failed to draw ratings (or attendance) before folding in 2003. The current Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league is a low-key property on the Fox Soccer Channel. The six-team league has one exclusive national game weekly, airing at 6 p.m. ET every Sunday.
The last Women's World Cup, which was held in China in 2007, drew a collective shrug from the American public. The games averaged an 0.4 rating and 394,000 viewers for 11 matches on ESPN, and an 0.2 rating and 232,000 viewers for 21 games on ESPN2. If you want a modern-day comparison, the College Action Sports Championships (yes, that exists) drew an 0.3 last Saturday on CBS.
Can ESPN find an audience for this month's Women's World Cup in Germany? Well, it won't be for a lack of resources and promotion. ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3 (broadband) will air all 32 matches live and in high definition, including the final on July 17 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). The network has studio programming on site, as well as prematch, halftime and postmatch shows. ESPN is using its premier game caller (Ian Darke) on U.S. games and the final, as well as a thoughtful studio host in Bob Ley, a noted soccer devotee. (Thankfully, ESPN opted to send Ley as opposed to Chris Berman, lest the audience be subjected to puns involving blitzkrieg and gefechtsstan.)
ESPN is even utilizing a mobile studio (dubbed "Big Blue" for the colors on the 18-wheel truck) throughout the World Cup. The set will travel throughout Germany, including hosting programming from Berlin, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and three other cities.
While such programming is great for hardcore soccer fans -- and keeps ESPN in FIFA's good graces -- it provides no guarantee that the casual fan will tune in. How will ESPN evaluate whether its production is a success?
"There's always that twofold evaluation," said Jed Drake, the ESPN senior vice president and executive producer charged with running the World Cup coverage. "One is our intrinsic read on how we did as a production team. Then, inevitably in the end, more importantly will be our ratings. I do believe that the interest in the U.S. team is going to generate a lot of interest."
According to the Sports Business Daily, Sunday's opener between Germany and Canada drew 953,000 viewers and an 0.6 U.S. rating on ESPN. The U.S. team was to open against North Korea on Tuesday (12:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) and will play Colombia on Saturday (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN). The network needs the U.S. team to go deep in this tournament to avoid a ratings catastrophe.
Regardless, one thing that ESPN must negotiate during the tournament is the line between commentary and advocacy. That's even trickier with a host of commentators -- Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kate Markgraf, Briana Scurry, Cat Whitehill and Tony DiCicco -- who had major roles on the national team.
"That is something we discuss internally a lot," Foudy said. "The last thing we want to do is not be true to the game. My approach has always been to give as objective analysis of a game as I can. You have some allegiances to the United States team and you always will, but at the same time my job is to give perspective how people are playing, or maybe if they need to be better in certain areas."
The tournament is already proving a television hit in one country: Germany. The country's state network ARD reported Monday that 14.09 million viewers watched the German women defeat Canada in the opener, shattering the women's soccer record when 10.48 million watched Germany beat Sweden in the 2003 final.
Dick Enberg announced earlier this month that this will be his 28th and final Wimbledon as a broadcaster. Later this summer, he'll call his final U.S. Open tennis tournament before he becomes a baseball-only broadcaster for the San Diego Padres. (The Open will be Enberg's 70th and final tennis major, a remarkable run for the sport.) Earlier in the week, I emailed Enberg, 76, some questions on television and tennis. Below, a quick Q&A:
SI.com: What are the most important characteristics a tennis play-by-play announcer should have and why?
Enberg: Since the recognizable stars are the analysts, the play-by-play person is required to give the nuts and bolts (score, aces, errors, etc.) and to personalize the athlete. Why should we care about them if we don't know their personal qualities? And how does that connect with history? That's my role.
SI.com: What does television do really well when it comes to tennis today?
Enberg: In my 32 years at Wimbledon [Enberg has attended 32], not much has changed -- better graphics, lower camera angles, super slow motion and tape machine replays -- but tennis speaks for itself. In fact, of all the TV sports, tennis needs announcers least of all. The sounds of the game and the umpire's call does it rather nicely. We should just try to stay out of the way. (Is this self-destructive to our careers?) Again, my role is to provide "sense of place." After all, Wimbledon and its famed Centre Court are a tennis history museum. Share it.
SI.com: What can television do better when it comes to tennis?
Enberg: What can we do better? Don't forget that the game, not the TV tricks, is of prime importance, not our faces, nor our words. The game, as the Bard wisely advised, is the thing.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is one of the most popular college basketball personalities on Twitter, and also part of a unique Twitter group: a person who follows no one. Of course, this was not always the case. Bilas initially followed Lady Gaga (he quickly decided it was a bad romance) and later followed Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart and several university compliance departments as a "lark." (Remember, it was Bilas who loudly proclaimed during Selection Sunday that VCU's inclusion in the tournament was indefensible.) So why has Bilas failed to click on the follow button?
"I haven't yet devoted the time to figuring out how to use Twitter as a news-gathering tool," Bilas said in an email. "So far, it's just been something I use as an outlet to get a thought out. I have some friends that tell me they use their page as a method to get news, but I don't really get that. I just go to my current sites and newspapers and seem to do fine. Plus, I'm still learning etiquette, as I have been told that I tweet too much on some days and too little on others. I am slightly more advanced technologically than Jeff Van Gundy, but only slightly."