ABC television aired the FIFA Kick Off Celebration Concert the night of the World Cup's opening games. The first act was a hip-hop artist of Somalian heritage named K'Naan. He performed his hit song "Wavin' Flag," which was the third single off his album Troubadour, which I named as one of the best albums of 2009. For the first time in the World Cup's 70-year history, the games were being hosted in Africa, and "Wavin' Flag" was the perfect song selection to start it.
Jeff Bradley, senior writer for ESPN magazine, published an article called "The Rise of African Soccer" and how through oppression, poverty and war, the game became a way of uniting and elevating the people of that continent. If you listen to the lyrics of "Wavin' Flag," beyond an overwhelming sense of strength, nationalism and pride, you'll also hear words that echo those feelings of oppression, poverty and war. But, along with them are inspirational messages of hope and overcoming obstacles. K'Naan sings, "Learn from these streets, it can be bleak, Accept no defeat, surrender, retreat."
Seven other pop acts followed K'Naan. All of them sang very rousing and motivational anthems, including John Legend who performed the Curtis Mayfield song "Move On Up" with Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy-winning artist from West Africa. The concert overall may not have had the same scope and importance as other African concerts like Zaire 74 or Live Aid, but in terms of music in conjunction with sporting events, this was certainly better than the last few Super Bowl half-time shows.
The concert included closing comments from African icon Lucas Radebe, a retired soccer star who The Daily Telegraph reports will assist David Beckham in England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. Continuing in the tradition of Pelé when he played for the New York Cosmos in 1975, David Beckham's signing to the Los Angeles Galaxy a couple of years ago was done in part to promote the sport of soccer in the United States.
As contributing writer to ESPN magazine Luke Cyphers puts it, the U.S. is a decidedly non-soccer nation. ESPN's heavy coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is believed to help change that. However, ESPN may have ulterior motives than just getting more Americans to care about the sport. Interest in soccer has been slowly building in the U.S. since 1994 when America hosted that year's World Cup and Cyphers notes that the growth of Major League Soccer in those past sixteen years has been substantial.
Nine brand-new, soccer-specific stadiums were built, including the closest to Delmarva, PPL Park in Philadelphia, which holds its first official home game this month. MLS' newly created Philadelphia Union will play the Seattle Sounders on June 27th there. Another soccer-specific stadium will open in Kansas City next year and six other soccer-specific stadiums are under proposal with one being considered in Washington, DC. PPL Park is capable of seating about 20,000 people. Its opening game is of course sold-out. Last year, the championship game at Qwest Field held and sold double that.
Yet, as the month-long, TV coverage begins of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa from June to July 11, Americans en masse are probably more interested in any game involving the NBA or Major League Baseball being that we're in the midst of that season. In fact, the World Cup more than the World Series absolutely deserves that first word in its title. Of course, that doesn't stop Americans from thinking because we invented it that baseball should be considered a World Series when in reality there's nothing worldly about it.
Riccardo Fraccari, the Italian president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), said he wants to rebrand baseball as a global sport and not just an American one. Yet, the fact remains that while baseball is big in North America and maybe Japan, nobody cares about it any place else. Yes, Fraccari would argue differently being that his IBAF organization has 112 members, but baseball was removed from the Summer Olympics.
Sports writer Mark Zuckerman in a 2008 article for The Washington Times argues that Olympic elimination is no indication of baseball's popularity around the world. He says the newly formed World Baseball Classic is actually the better indicator, but, regardless, baseball doesn't come close to the world-wide love and dominance of soccer or what's internationally known as football.
For example, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has 208 members. That's 208 participating countries. That's more members than the United Nations or even more members than the Olympic Committee has. A.A. Gill, contributing editor for Vanity Fair, cited that 715 million TV viewers watched the last World Cup game in 2006, which was ten times the number that watched the Super Bowl that year and almost fifty times the number that watched the World Series that year.
A.A. Gill wrote, "Most countries see their football team as an expression of national solidarity." He continued, "It isn't music or movies or pizza that is the lingua franca of the globe." Gill said it's soccer. As a person who loves music, movies and pizza, I take exception to his opinion of what's lingua franca, but I get it when he wrote that FIFA's World Cup is "the greatest sporting event in the world, ever."
Despite that, ESPN's coverage of the World Cup is pretty unprecedented. From television, both broadcast and cable, Internet and mobile devices, ESPN is going above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, the network is also providing ESPN-3D, a digital cable channel that with a special TV unit and glasses will bring the World Cup games even further into American homes. That way, for those camera angles in the back of the net like when Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal in South Africa's opening game, viewers can watch during replays those Adidas Jabulani balls fly at them from the screen.
But, the question is why? Why is ESPN going balls out for World Cup coverage? Does ESPN truly believe that the small yet growing interest in American soccer warrants all this, or is there an ulterior motive?
Earlier this year, NBC covered the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The peacock network was highly criticized for the way it did so. People complained mainly that it hardly ever provided the games live as they were happening. NBC delayed some live games in order to air them in prime-time slots to optimize ratings. Those delays, however, upset a lot of NBC viewers.
According to Jake Coyle of the Associated Press, thanks to ESPN, the World Cup will get more online coverage than any major sporting event in the history of online coverage. This is in addition to the live TV coverage that ABC and ESPN will share, so that all 64 matches in the World Cup will be available live. Viewers who want to see the World Cup games as they're happening can do so, whether it's on their TVs, their computers, or their smart phones. No complaints at all in that department! And, with the broadcast rights of the Olympics past 2012 up in the air, ESPN is out to show that it can handle that coverage and even do a better job than NBC.
So, is ESPN's ulterior motive simply to steal the broadcast rights to the Olympics away from NBC? I suppose we'll have to wait till 2012 to learn that answer. AP television writer David Bauder seems to hint that it is ESPN's goal. However, Bauder also reports that ESPN is speficially targeting ethnic pockets in the U.S., offering coverage in several languages, perhaps to compete with booming outlets like Univision, and is purchasing rights to sports abroad. Clearly, ESPN is trying to expand into international markets.
It's funny because ESPN purchased the rights to England's premier league. There was a lot of anticipation in the run-up to England's first match against the United States. The hype over the the Three Lions versus the Yanks was phenomenonal. Their first match was all anyone really talked about. Despite the amazing shot in the first four minutes by England's Stephen Gerrard, the Three Lions actually came out looking bad, particularly at the hands of their goalkeeper Robert Green who literally let the ball slip out of his fingers and into the net.
Meanwhile, American goalie, Tim Howard, came out looking like a superstar, slightly wounded but still a superstar. His ability to save his team's net from getting touched by the ball was impressive, specifically in the way that he did it. Several times, Howard curled up on top of the ball after jumping on it to stop it and avoid any possible rebounds.
The game ended, however, in a tie, and according to the Nielsen ratings a record-breaking 13 million tuned in on a Saturday afternoon to see it. While I thought it was a good game, I thought the first round match between Germany and Australia was way more exciting. It was incredible to see Germany's Mannschaft stomp Australia's Socceroos. All four of its strikers, Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose, Thomas Mueller and Cacau all scored on the Aussies, the last two back-to-back.
Asamoah Gyan who scored the winning penalty kick for Ghana in their match against Serbia was good. The top-rated teams, such as Brazil, Spain, and Portugal have yet to step on the pitch as of my writing this on June 14. On the Thursday prior to the opening game, Sports Nation did a segment that explained the science that goes into a bicycle kick. It got me all pumped to the see the real thing in action.