What’s Wrong With Soccer Broadcasting? (Soccer vs American Sports, part 4)

Posted on July 22, 2010


The job of sports broadcasters is to help viewers see the order and intention where the untrained eye sees only chaos. We expect broadcasters to be experts of the game. (By “broadcasters” I mean the entire team, from the people who plan and select the camera angles and design or use replay and “telestrator” technology, to the commentators of the live action and the analysts in the studio during intermissions or in special shows between matches.)  The ability to “see” order and intention where the untrained eye sees only randomness is the mark of the expert. An expert in a sport is able to “see” tactics in the way a dermatologist can quickly distinguish dangerous from benign moles, or the detective can reconstruct a crime and a motive where others see only a crime scene marked off with yellow tape.

Broadcasters are also educators: their job is to help us see, or at least think we see, the way they can. Moreover, they are educators with huge budgets and all the illustrative technology you could ever want at their disposal. This is why it is so disheartening that the anonymous author or authors of the soccer blog Zonal Marking could shine so much more light on the World Cup matches than the big networks with hours of daily airtime and some of the greatest stars in living memory sitting around tables. Zonal Marking did it on a shoe-string budget with essentially PowerPoint technology — single-frame screen shots from a television, with colored dots and arrows, and a few brief sentences. (Check out any of their game analyses from their home page, but look in particular at the multi-part breakdown of the final, beginning here.) It’s so easy to see how this approach could be adapted and improved on television; and so frustrating that it rarely is.

It rarely is in soccer broadcasting, that is. American football broadcasters are the masters of this art, and as a result they have surely created, especially over the past couple of decades, the most well informed fans of any sport. This is all the more remarkable given that only a tiny minority of American football fans have ever actually played the sport in an organized league (with full padding and full contact).

I can’t claim to have a comprehensive familiarity with every show on every sports network in every soccer-loving country, and I guess I would still be surprised if there weren’t some useful shows here and there. But I have watched domestic leagues, World Cups, European Championships, and the Champions’ League, in several countries over three decades, and the dire state of coverage for the average viewer seems to be the norm.

Earlier in the spring I had a three-part rant against the mass-media analysis and broadcasting of hockey (beginning here) in North America, and virtually everything I said there applies equally to the broadcasting of soccer. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, for two reasons. First, both hockey and soccer are at the most “flowing” end of the spectrum of sports, where set-plays are rarer and offensive and defensive tactics and play are intermingled at most times. This explains why it is much more difficult to “see” and to explain what is going on tactically in these two sports.

But a second feature they both share might account for generations of complacency in the culture of broadcasting. Hockey in Canada, and soccer in most of the countries where it is big, enjoyed decades of near-monopoly for the passions of mass team-sports fans. And in many of these countries (especially in Europe) games were shown on state-owed TV networks with no incentives to improve the already-popular broadcasts.

Innovation in the basic broadcasts of soccer games themselves is now difficult because the biggest and most important games and tournaments are international in scope and seem to use a standard feed that goes out to all of the national networks, one which will inevitably stick to the lowest-common-denominator formula. Namely, no matter how many cameras you have around and above the stadium, 98% of the live footage should come from the one camera mounted high up on one side of midfield, along with a few close-ups here and there of the player on the ball.

So what would an ideal live broadcast look like?

Let’s assume we’re broadcasting for fairly large, high-definition screens. Sure, these aren’t yet universal in the developed world, and far from it in the developing world. But let us consider what would be best, and then imagine that a somewhat different broadcast could be delivered to older screens.

  • Much more use should be made of other camera angles, and for extended periods (at least 30 seconds to a minute). And as much as possible, we should be liberated from that awful high mid-field side camera. Offensive and defensive tactics are all about space, zones of responsibility, and match-ups within and between these zones. But that standard camera serious distorts and compresses space; it gives the impression that the pitch is at least one-third narrower.
  • There should be much greater use of cameras that are high and behind each goal. We should be able to watch how teams carry the ball out of their own end (or from goal kicks). We should be shown from time to time what this movement up field looks like from behind the attacking team as well as from the point of view of the defending team. This camera could allow us to see all 22 players (or 21 as it moves far enough away from the keeper out of play). It will compress the length of the pitch, but it will magically reveal the lateral spaces.
  • There should be at least some extended live sequences using a camera directly above the center of the pitch, and capable of showing the entire pitch. Again, this would be a great way to see a goal kick and the ensuing midfield battles, not least because it would make it easier for the commentators to discuss and illustrate the two teams’ basic formations, shapes, and favored match-ups. This camera should also be used extensively for in-game replays and explanations of just about every goal or good scoring opportunity.
  • A camera directly over the penalty area showing 21 players should be used for every replay of a corner kick, and even live during corner kicks some of the time. The current convention for the live shot of a corner kick reveals almost nothing to the untrained eye.
  • Speaking of corner kicks and set plays in general: a little help with explaining away the apparent randomness and chaos would help. These make up the few moments when soccer stops, briefly, being a pure flow sport. Teams practice these set-pieces for hours every week. I presume they have a number of distinct ways to run each of these plays, with specific assignments for each player, and a rich vocabulary to distinguish the different plays and the assignments of each player. In three decades of watching soccer on TV, and I’ve never been given any indication that most of these set-pieces were any more tactically complicated than a coin flip.
  • There seems to be in most soccer cultures a distinct aversion to “American-style” statistical analysis. And there are of course plenty of fairly unhelpful pieces of data — or at least data that do not in themselves tell much of the story. The percentage-of-possession stats seem especially unhelpful. Shots, shots-on-goal, and corner kicks are also less than reliable as a way of evaluating which team had the better of the play, but they are better than nothing. What would be more helpful would be some aggregate statistic not from the game per se, but from a large number of games involving the teams or players. What percentage of corner kicks and direct free kicks are successful at various levels (e.g. in World Cups, in the Premiership or Champions’ League), and which teams or players seem to have a significantly better chance of either scoring or not being scored on in these situations? Is anybody tracking data on errors by individual goalkeepers in general, or on corner kicks and free kicks in particular? If the viewer is supposed to get more excited when set-piece plays are about to happen, wouldn’t it be useful to tell the viewer what the rough odds are? In any case, soccer broadcasting doesn’t have to be flooded with useless data. It reveals less than it does in taking-turns sports (especially baseball). But objective information can further what should be the mission of a sports broadcast: to help us see order and intention in what looks like randomness.
  • There’s no particular reason why the second person in the booth has to be a former player, let alone an inarticulate former striker (they seem to be over-represented, don’t they?). What we need is someone who is explaining to the viewer the sorts of things the manager will have been explaining to the players in preparing for the game. We want to know what should be going on in the heads of the players and the manager. So why not have more managers in the booth? And not just any managers, but the ones with a reputation for tactical acuity.

So much for how to improve live broadcasts. (Further suggestions in the comment section, below, are of course welcome.) In fairness, they can never be as enlightening as NFL or baseball broadcasts for the simple reason that there is not all of that dead space to fill in between plays. But most broadcasts of big soccer matches include pre-game, half-time, and post-game shows, often with an hour or more to kill. This is the most disheartening time of all for a soccer connoisseur. We see endless replays of goals, near-goals, and bad calls. There is a strong need to settle on a basic narrative (especially after the match) and this will almost always be couched in psychologistic (if not moralistic) language about how much effort or heart the key players put into it. If a key offensive play-maker has a bad game (which often means that he was strangely invisible) it is attributed to his failings, rather than to the way he was neutralized by the defensive tactics.

So what should post-game shows look like?

In a sentence: they should look like a cross between the sort of thing we see at ZonalMarking.net and what we see on the ESPN show called NFL Matchup. This half-hour weekly show makes extensive use of the overhead footage the league provides to the teams after each game, as well as footage from above and behind either the offensive or defensive formations. They look for key plays (not always successful ones) to illustrate tactics and the responsibilities of players with or away from the ball to make the whole play work. They stop and start the slow motion replay. Illustrate on the screen, focus on where the players are looking and how this informs or deceives the players they are matched up with, and so on. They might take two minutes to explain a play that lasted for seven seconds, because that is how long it takes to let us know what the players and coaches are thinking about and trying to accomplish. In addition to using this kind of game film in soccer analysis (and we know the teams themselves use it), analysts could also introduce viewers to some of the computerized tracking and analysis tools the teams are using to better understand formations and players’ tendencies. These have been around since Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s pioneering work with Dynamo Kiev in the 1970s, but I don’t think I have even seen a demonstration of what it is that coaches can analyze in games with the help of computers and tracking technology. Why wouldn’t that make for enlightening TV?

Well, they could do all that. Or they could just continue to ignore most of the real core of the tactical encounter and fall back on the comfort of luck, of ethnic and national stereotypes, of pointing out who “wanted it” more, or who was lazy, or of how the referee handed the winners the match.