Last week former tennis star and current broadcast analyst, John McEnroe, was right when he said that the three-day, 11-hour record-blasting Wimbledon match between John Isner of the United States and Nicolas Mahut of France was “the greatest advertisement for our sport.”
The event lasted 186 games and broke nearly every Wimbledon and Grand Slam record each of the three days it was played. Officiating was near pristine. Even the head lines judge was wowed by the competition.
Change channels to World Cup soccer where referees became the story. Players, coaches and analysts seemed to question calls at every turn. Fans, particularly in the United States where soccer popularity remains infantile, have been outraged. Video replay isn’t used and officials do not have to explain their calls as in the National Football League and other professional sports with which we’re more familiar. In addition, former professional soccer player Alexi Lalas said on SportsCenter that FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), international soccer’s governing body, believes that controversy is good for soccer because it keeps the game in peoples’ discussions.
All righty then… if that’s what it takes to get people to talk about your sport…
(FIFA insists that its referees’ performances have been satisfactory and instead of promises to improve official’s performances, said it will censor stadium replays at World Cup.)
The message I took from these two major sports events whose tournaments continue into this week is that Americans will leave soccer by the wayside within days until the World Cup reemerges in four years.
Tennis, which was prodded by some controversy of its own before it hit its all-time high in popularity in the 1970s (okay, it was manufactured) and ‘80s, will still be more accepted among Americans because its rules are steadfast. When a ball is called out, it’s because a linesperson saw it out or the call was reviewed via video. It’s not afraid to show its fans where balls land on a second serve or when a player (in most cases) gracefully disputes a call.
Admittedly I am pro-tennis, but I’m not anti-soccer. I value the First Amendment and Open Records laws and thus, disagree with the reaction of FIFA to shade plays from replay screens and insist that everything is great when so many fans complain. As many suggested after Jim Joyce’s’ MLB call against Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga earlier this summer, the technology is there. Even if fans don’t know what should have been the call while they’re in the stands, they’ll know after they surf for the video when they get home. That can’t make for healthy growth of a sport. It certainly won’t in the United States.
As someone who’s roots were planted in tennis, I agree with McEnroe. While we’ll likely never see a three-day soccer match nor another tennis match like last week’s, I think back to a comment made by one of my first PR clients who said that there’s plenty of pie to go around the tennis landscape. When there are more tennis stories, everybody gets a bigger piece of the word-of-mouth pie. The same goes for sports in general. I hope FIFA isn’t being different or difficult for the sake of being different or difficult. There’s a great appetite for sports in this world and pieces of popularity will be bigger for those who enjoy transparency. A sport that’s already internationally popular could grow exponentially with a clearer (re)view.
There will undoubtedly be soccer purists who disagree with me with the power of a header, but are these the same people who I see complaining about the game’s officials throughout the social mediascape?
John McEnroe – who by the way I love on the Wimbledon coverage – was also pointing out the behaviour of the French Team at the World Cup and the contrasting example set by Mahut the French tennis player. As a Brit we are disgusted at the performance of our team (we are supposed to have invented the game after all) who appeared to be performing half heartedly, and in contrast we saw two tennis players who gave their all. It was just sad that one of them had to lose and also that Isner was really not fit for his next round match. However, a lesson in dedication and staying power for us all.
I blogged extensively about this on my own, and I'll reiterate here that what really frustrates me about FIFA is that they refuse to acknowledge that times have changed. I understand the need to maintain the “purity” of the sport, but FIFA officials also have to understand that fans have changed since 1904 (the year FIFA was founded). We are accustomed to having access to technology and it is foolish not to utilize it, especially when it would save the sport so many headaches. Also, from a PR standpoint the decision to censor stadium instant replays is possibly the most foolish decision FIFA has ever made.
I agree whole-heartedly. It was mesmerizing to watch those two battle it out. This is exactly why sports exist.
Thanks for your comments and for reading, Dmitriy and Maria. I realize I was stepping out on a limb having not worked in soccer, but as a consumer, I realized who won this PR battle during the weekend.
I agree completely, and I'm more of a soccer fan than a tennis fan (although I certainly do enjoy Wimbeldon a lot). It's interesting to see international organizations like FIFA or the IOC (this past winter). They seem so far behind the times compared to, as you mentioned, someone like the NFL. I think with the technology, especially in American sports coverage, these organizations need to realize that they can't get away with glaring mistakes like they once could.
It's also worth noting (and crediting) ESPN/ABC with it's extensive coverage and camera angles. I think the controversy has been so glaring this year in part due to the fact that there are such great, high-def replays provided, and FIFA hasn't figured out how to use those to their benefit. As you said, they just censor it in the stadium, but that doesn't do them any favors elsewhere. ESPN certainly isn't going to censor it's perfectly positioned replay (nor should it)!