No matter where you went, it's all people could talk about. The U.S. team had played well enough to advance into the knockout round of the tournament, but were still underdogs. A young team, they had a coach who was positive, challenged them, and made them believe in themselves.
While that’s been the case recently with the U..S Men’s National Soccer Team, the scenario I’m talking about was 34 years ago when the U.S. Hockey team went on a run in the Olympics and eventually won the Gold Medal.
I was working at the ABC Network affiliate in Charleston, South Carolina, at the time, new to the business and as excited as a sports fan as anybody that the hockey team had surpassed all expectations and was going to face the Soviet Union in the semi-finals in Lake Placid. All anybody could talk about was the upcoming match up (it was at the height of the Cold War) and as the ABC affiliate; we were on display since at the time ABC was the Olympic network. Before cable and satellite were part of the everyday television reality, before cell phones and smart phones were in everybody’s hand, it was us vs. the Soviets and it was going to be televised on our station.
Before negotiating with Olympic officials about the timing of the events and the importance of television to the whole Olympic movement, the IOC decided when the events would be contested at their leisure. So the US/Soviet Union semifinal hockey match, the biggest thing going, the only thing anybody was talking about, was scheduled for four o’clock in the afternoon.
With no other outlet to show the game live, ABC decided they’d run the game on tape and show it in “prime time” starting at 7 p.m. on the East Coast. As I mentioned, it was before cable and cell phones so you could still play that game of not knowing what happened in the game, and turn your television on at 7 p.m. and watch it “plausibly live.”
And a lot of people did that.
To accommodate them, I did all kinds of silly things on the air when we had the Olympics (and continued that tradition at Channel 4 when CBS picked up some of the Olympic games). I held up signs, told people to turn the sound down, skirted around the issue and generally had fun with it. But on that night with a big audience watching, I was in a bit of a dilemma. I don’t remember if the game was over by the time I went on the 6 o’clock news but I do remember telling people I wouldn’t reveal the score or anything about the game during the sportscast. That decision had it’s detractors, and I answered the phone starting at 6:30, telling people what they wanted to know since I had kept it out of the 6 o’clock news. (Remember, no internet, radio played music, no way to get the information unless you knew somebody at a news outlet. I know, seems like a hundred years ago.) I was the viewer’s conduit to the information of the day and some didn’t like that I had shirked my “responsibility.”
So I spent the next half-hour telling people we had won and explaining that it was a station-wide decision to not tell the score (we didn’t say anything during the newscast either) and that the news director and the general manager were part of that decision-making process.
You might know that network affiliates take advantage of their affiliation in many ways, but a “promo” or a “tease” at the top of the hour, right before one of your favorite network shows, is a big opportunity for an affiliate to promote their own product. You see this a lot in the evening with the local anchors promoting the station’s coverage of the news that night.
At the time, we were only doing a 6 and 11 o’clock newscast so those three-second spots at the top of the hour were valuable in promoting our late news. So after all of this elaborate planning and shenanigans, the game broadcast was finally scheduled to begin at 7 o’clock. But at 6:59:57 we had a 3 second tease, taped in advance right after the 6 o’clock news, promoting our 11 o’clock broadcast, right after the Olympics.
At that moment, I looked at our monitor in the newsroom ready to watch the game myself (there was no feed of the game anywhere while it was going on) and our 11 o’clock anchor, a young woman who went on to some success in her career after Charleston, smiled, looked right into the camera and said, “Big win for the Americans. Highlights at 11!”
It sounds quaint, but people had set up their whole day around knowing this was going to be broadcast “plausibly live.” They rushed home from work, rushed through dinner and sat down in front of their televisions ready to watch the “big game.” And at that moment their bubble was burst. And they were mad. So what did they do? They called the television station. And since it was a “sports” story, the news director designated me to answer the phones and explain what happened.
While I’m not a big fan of being out of touch with what’s going on around you, I still probably was a bit harsh on the phone myself. I was also mad. And I knew I’d be taking the brunt of this “miscue” for a while.
So for the next half hour or so I answered the phone explaining what happened and ended each conversation with “The game’s on right now, don’t you want to watch it?”
Not since then have I seen this kind of excitement surrounding a team wearing “USA” on their chest. Yes, the women’s soccer team caused a stir in 1999 winning the women’s World Cup but nothing like this.
Watch parties, appointment television, interest from people who couldn’t care less about soccer or sports in general is an indication of the shrinking world and the expanding knowledge available when it comes to information.
Soccer was generally a fringe sport, and some even thought of it as “un-American.” In 1994 when we hosted the World Cup, I couldn’t get my News Director to even let me drive to Orlando to cover some games. Her answer: “Nobody cares.”
What a difference this time around, and for a lot of reasons. The global information age we live in has brought the game closer. NBC Sports Network televises the English Premiere League every weekend in season. Stars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo transcend the sport. ESPN covers the MLS with highlights during Sports Center.
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The decision-makers in newsrooms around America are familiar with the game, many of them having played it as kids. And the reporters are in the same group. Guys like Dan Jenkins and Jim Murray, influential sports writers of the 60s 70s and 80s didn’t have that much interest in the game other than it was “foreign.” Now, sports reporters are familiar with the game, for many having played as kids and followed it along the way.
I played the game as a kid, mainly because they wouldn’t let me play football. Too big for my age group and my parents didn’t want me to “play up” with the older kids. I played on a church team, a club team and played a lot of pick up games.
My interest in the game only grew when I was the voice of the Jacksonville Tea Men in the NASL doing television play by play on Channel 4 when we broadcast the games. I spent many nights listening to Noel Cantwell, Dennis Viollet and Arthur Smith explain the ins and outs and nuance of the game. And I stayed close to it through my own children’s careers, as they all played, culminating with my son’s captaincy of his high school team as a senior.
So in other words, I really like the game. And I’m glad so many people are coming to the game and I don’t care if it’s only because a team with USA is playing.
Good for you.
Good for us.