Much has been made of ESPN's 2014 coverage of the NCAA wrestling tournament. In Thursday's release to sports media outlets across the country, ESPN noted a 39% increase in viewership over last year. With their expanded digital coverage of "Every Session, Every Match" of the NCAA Tournament as shown online at ESPN3 and WatchESPN & on their flagship TV channel ESPN, it's easy to understand why. When it comes to distribution, ESPN does it better than anyone else. When it comes to narrating the premier event in our sport, however, they fall short.
I was in the Chesepeake Energy Arena for the NCAA Tournament covering the event alongside those from ESPN so I was not able to view their broadcasts until last night, on ESPNU & a DVR recording -and man was it uhh...not good (the production was great, but the commentating was just lousy). With more eyeballs on our sport than ever before, we allowed wrestling amateurs to call wrestling's biggest moments when only experts should've been behind the mic. But honestly, what else should we expect from a crew that doesn't cover a single event until the end of the year?
Below is a listing of commentary blunders and storyline oversights, weight by weight from their semi finals and finals broadcasts -both of which were shown on ESPN.
The ESPN play-by-play is not good -it's not called with hyper-focus and it's not called by experts of our sport. Time after time, the commentators fail to emphasize the intensity of the situation (the impact of a big takedown in the first period, the change in momentum as riding time begins to accrue, etc.). Everything came off as formulaic and vanilla. And where's the excitement and the emotion after one of our sport's biggest stars achieves something he's been working for his whole life? Wrestler X just became an NCAA Champion -make it seem like a big deal!
And what about context! This year's team race was sooooo close! Nearly every single semi final match had team implications (at the time, it seemed Penn State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State and Iowa all had a chance to make a run at the team title). But these guys didn't hammer this into the brains of wrestling fans. Why? That's all everyone was talking about in Oklahoma City; that's what made every single match, every single round so much fun to watch.
All in all, we should praise ESPN for the energy they put in expanding this year's NCAA coverage, but as wrestling fanatics, we cannot overlook the way ESPN delivered our SuperBowl.
125lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
In the Nahshon Garrett v. Nico Megaludis roller coaster of a semi final, the commentators completely ignored a most wild Nahshon Garrett takedown sequence in the first period of the match. It wasn't until the official challenge that they started to explain what was going on and why it was important. This would be the equivalent of Troy Aikman not giving play-by-play on a touchdown in the Super Bowl until watching the replay to see if the receiver's toes were in bounds on the touchdown catch. Why? They should've been clinging to every second of the match. Penn State team points were on the line in this one!
133lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
They messed up twice here. In the Tyler Graff vs. Joe Colon semi final, we see a HIGHLY controversial 2pt takedown and 2pt nearfall awarded to Graff during a scramble. This exchange won Graff the match. Unfortunately those commentating during the exchange had no play-by-play during the scenario and instead decided it best to provide color commentary on Colon. And in the Ramos vs. Graff finals, they called Tyler Graffs' headgear a helmet -A FREAKING HELMET! #CmonMan
141lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
In the Devin Carter vs. Evan Henderson semi final, they mentioned that by getting to the semi finals, Evan Henderson became UNC's first wrestler to All American since 2005 .Umm...Evan Henderson All American'd last year. Then in the 2nd most anticipated semi final of the whole tournament, Stieber v Retherford III, they cut away from the match to go a Devin Carter interview. Guy's, there was still over 1:30 left in the match! I imagine a Penn State fan or two threw the clicker at the TV during that moment.
149lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
I can't remember exactly who it was, but I think Adam Amin (surely not Tim Johnson) said this during the Jason Tsirtsis vs. Josh Kindig final:
"..taking a shot can hurt your momentum because it lets the guy get back to his base." Uh, what?
157lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
In the finals, they made solid mention of how Ness needed to win to keep Minnesota in contention for a team title. They also brought up the Ness/Dieringer overtime match earlier in the year. One big thing I think they missed blowing up, however, is the big Ness upset over James Green. I think they should've shown a replay of Ness pinning the man most thought was going to win the NCAA title this year. If I were watching college wrestling for the first time and I saw the pin and the crowd reaction directly after, I'd be hooked for life. That should be their aim: to hook fans for life.
165lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
They did a pretty solid job with the color commentary here, but the play-by-play was amiss. In the David Taylor vs. Steven Monk semi final, Amin said something along the lines of, "David Taylor's about to finish him off here," while he was simply cheap tilting Monk (nowhere near pinning him). More of the same in the Taylor vs. Caldwell final (flawed play-by-play).
174lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
In Friday's loudest match --maybe the loudest match of the whole tournament-- we saw Mike Evans put Chris Perry on his back for what looked like a possible touchfall. My jaw dropped while watching, OSU and Iowa fans screamed boisterously, coaches grabbed each other and pointed at the match. At ESPN, they barely batted an eye. They totally missed the excitement of the moment and glossed over how important a win for both wrestlers would affect the team race. In the Chris Perry vs. Andrew Howe final, they (on multiple occasions) get the wrestlers confused as hundreds of thousands watch the opening NCAA Final match on television.
184lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
Ed Ruth vs. Gabe Dean III: probably the most anticipated match of the whole NCAA tournament, the match to go bonkers over. Well they had their opportunity when Ruth was awarded a questionable takedown in the first period. They did mention the takedown but they made no mention over how controversial it was. The controversy here needs to be amplified, exploited. Cornell fans are still probably pissed off about how that one was called. The takedown made the difference in the match and had a huge impact on the team race as Ruth moved onto his third straight finals.
197lbs - Where ESPN Messed Up
They're calling of action wasn't half bad in the semi finals and finals, but it wasn't amazing either. In the J'Den Cox vs. Chris Penny semi final, it might've been nice to mention that no one on planet Earth picked Chris Penny to make it that far. In the finals, it would've been nice if they didn't show replays during live action. We have a true freshman going for history here -let us see it already.
HWT - Where ESPN Messed Up
In the Nick Gwiazdowski vs. Adam Chalfant semi final, the commentators spend too much time busting each other's chops and not enough time calling the action. In the Tony Nelson vs. Bobby Telford semi final, they mentioned Tony Nelson as being benched for a month this season. I think he was only out for a couple events, and I'm not sure if he was "benched." Furthermore, that's the not the story here. The story is this: if Tony Nelson wins, he puts Minnesota in first place in the team race and sets himself up for his third NCAA title.
Editors Note: I'll admit that I'm being critical here, but I feel that everything I wrote is warranted. The NCAA Tournament is the #1 most important event wrestling fanatics look forward to every year. I just can't get excited about a vanilla broadcast crew delivering flawed play-by-play anymore. For me, this is the most exciting time of the year. For those at ESPN, the NCAA Tournament is nothing more than a "business as usual" type of outing -at least it seems that way.
For more controversy & non-stop sports musings, follow me @NickVelliquette
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