September 18, 2013
By Charles Cuttone
HBO Sports could use a soccer primer
So, HBO’s Real Sports has finally discovered soccer. After doing a one-sided hatchet job on Chivas USA a few weeks ago, the cable TV magazine show aired a downright positive piece on Seattle Sounders FC Tuesday night. Sort of.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Real Sports, always try to catch it. With their budget and reach, they do the type of journalism all of us in the business want to do consistently.
But, while they were gushing about the fantastic fan base the Sounders have, the traditions the team has developed, such as the pre-game walk to the stadium and the 90 minutes of non-stop noise coming from the supporters, the show’s reporters, producers and host Bryant Gumbel made one thing very, very clear. They know nothing about soccer and its culture, fans or structure either here or in the rest of the world.
The show played up the fact that the fans can vote to remove the team’s general manager, just like they do in other part of the world. When was the last time a manager in the Premiership, Serie A or Bundesliga was voted out by the fans? Oh, Barcelona supporters can vote in the club’s Presidential election, but that club is not privately owned as most major clubs in the world now are, and the voting privilege is held only by a the soci, who are club members.
HBO’s talking heads also pointed out that the Sounders attendance is 42,000 a game while the MLS average is about 18,000. Gumbel asked the piece’s reporter John Frankel, why this can’t be replicated in other places in the league.
HBO’s website synopsis of the episode describes the Sounders as “ the one U.S. soccer team consistently packing its stadium with tens of thousands of fans, they engage their passionate followers in a way unlike any other American sports franchise.”
Someone should send HBO to Portland, or Kansas City, or Philadelphia, or Los Angeles for a Galaxy game, or even on certain nights to New York for a Red Bull game. No those teams are not playing to crowds of 40,000 plus, but their stadiums are full and noisy and the fans have similar traditions. More than half of MLS’s teams draw above the league average, which is skewed on the high end by the Sounders (43,180) and on the low end by Chivas USA (8,230), the subject of HBO’s last MLS piece.
HBO should have been in Columbus last Tuesday for the United States’ epic 2-0 win over rival Mexico. Someone should have told HBO Sports that over 100 million Americans watched the last World Cup. Or that the New York Yankees and Manchester City paid $100 million for a second MLS franchise.
Someone should have told HBO Sports that over $1 billion has been spent building soccer stadiums in North American in the last decade.
But if HBO had known that, maybe the Sounders story isn’t such a big deal. Oh what the Sounders have done in Seattle is fantastic. It’s fun to be there, it’s fun to watch on TV, but the only anomaly there is the attendance of 40,000 plus instead of around 20,000.
But knowledge of soccer, hey why would anyone at HBO Sports need that, after all, as their chief correspondent Frank Deford pointed out a few years ago, had there been as much money invested in lacrosse as had been lost in soccer, the native American game would be among the big four sports, right up there with the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. That’s the same Frank Deford who presided over one of the biggest sports media disasters in history, the short-lived daily sports paper TheNational, which had a shorter life than most failed soccer leagues.
But of course, no one ever saw that potential in lacrosse. Plenty of intelligent business minds did see that potential in soccer. The Sounders might be the biggest proof of that, but they are far from the only proof, and certainly not the anomaly that HBO would have its viewers believe.