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22 August 2015

What the science teaching community can learn from NBC's soccer coverage

The best sporting events need no over-the-top, carnival barker-style salesmanship in order to draw a large audience; physics, or science in general, similarly needs no hype to make it interesting.  Bear with me as I give a brief tutorial of American sports coverage.  I'll get to the physics teaching connection at the end.

For decades, baseball was the only American sport that mattered.  Coverage included the dulcet voices of Vin Scully and Al Michaels, who took the game seriously, even though they didn't take themselves too seriously.  They knew that baseball, interwoven with a century of history, would sell itself -- their job was to tell the story of that days' game.

Baseball lost its title of "America's Pastime" to football not because of underpromotion, but because football is by far more suited to television and 21st century lifestyles.  When FOX took over national telecasts in the late 1990s, they tried to change baseball's downward trend in popularity with wrestling-style promotion: "NOW!!!  PUJOLS VS LESTER!!!!  LIVE!!!"  If anything, FOX has turned people off by misrepresenting their product.  Baseball is not suited to such treatment.

On the other hand, the championships at Wimbledon and the Masters golf tournament explicitly reject the typical "loud men screaming and laughing at each other" coverage that is typical for an American sporting event.  The tournament hosts insist upon a serious, nay reverent broadcast; yet they draw extraordinary television ratings, and tickets are next to impossible to come by.  Funny, that.

Then there's soccer.  For most of my life, what little soccer coverage I could see tried too hard to sell sizzle.  "Americans don't know about this game, and it's a boring game, to boot," said the producers (who also knew nothing about soccer).  So the announcers talked down to us: "Now, when I was little, my coach called this big box here the 'mixer.'  You're supposed to put the ball in the mixer to score goals."*  The pregame shows tried to explain the rules of the game again and again in excited voices, rather than to tell the story of the game's history.  The broadcast ignored everything but items deemed of direct relevance to Americans, who had no soccer history anyway.  It was all so, so condescending to even the mildly knowledgeable fan.  No wonder no one watched: those who were serious soccer fans felt talked down to, and those who weren't certainly didn't fall for the artificial sales job.

* Not kidding -- approximate quote from 1994 World Cup coverage.

Let's examine that paragraph in a science teaching context.  Rewrite, substituting science for sport.

Then there's science.  Too many science education programs try too hard to sell sizzle.  "Kids don't know about science, and science is boring, to boot" say the people providing education grants, who too often know little about science or science teaching.  So the teachers, program directors, and presenters talk down to students.  "And without science, we couldn't have iphones, and you couldn't twitter to your friends!  Isn't science great?"  Classes are taught facts and equations, without connecting those facts and equations to experiments that students can themselves perform.  Topics are ignored unless they can be made immediately "relevant to everyday life," even if said relevance is so forced as to be a camel through the eye of a needle.  It is all so, so condescending to even the moderately intelligent student.  No wonder people get turned off: smart, otherwise interested students feel talked down to, and those who aren't already interested don't fall for the artificial sales job.

Soccer coverage has changed.  In 2008, ESPN tried something different.  They put on Europe's premier soccer tournament, one that did not involve a single American.  They named Bob Ley, perhaps the only prominent American broadcaster with a bona fide soccer background, as the studio host.  They gave up trying to force the use of American-accented commentators, and instead hired the best, most experienced soccer commentators in the world -- even if that meant hiring foreigners.  They told the story of the tournament on its own terms, not attempting to adapt to an American audience or an ignorant audience.  Point was, if soccer was so great, this major tournament which drew hundreds of millions of watchers in Europe would sell itself.

And it did.  People watched, and talked about the games and the stories.  The drama was authentic, the audience was captivated.  

Now, NBC broadcasts the English Premier League in the US using the same principles.  They tell the story of the league from a true fan's perspective, trusting the audience to keep up.  Just like Apple doesn't have to oversell the iphone, just like google doesn't need to hype its search service, NBC recognizes that the Premier League is a product that needs no enhancement, as long as the commentary is smart and authentic.  NBC's ratings are through the roof, despite the lack of on-air shouty salesmanship.

Science sells itself, as long as the teacher is good.  There's a reason that so many of you reading this are interested in science -- and it's not because someone screamed at you that science is FUN!  While many of us do some crazy-arse things in our classrooms, it's not the craziness that wins our students' hearts and minds.  It's the subject we teach, it's the way we communicate our deep knowledge of the subject, and it's the way we relate to our students about our subject.  Problems come when teachers *don't* know their subject or can't build relationships with the class.  Feigned enthusiastic salesmanship doesn't make those problems go away.

So please, folks... let's encourage science teaching in which the teacher takes science seriously.  Let's encourage expert teachers, both experts in subject and experts in relating to students, to do their thing the way they see fit.  Let's encourage more folks who are experts in one of these skills to become expert in the other.  

But let's not oversell science as a discipline.  There's no need.  We have an amazing product that a lot of people want.  We just have to manage the queue and provide outstanding customer service.


  1. I love this. How can I post this on Twitter?

  2. Thanks, James! You can copy and paste the URL straight into your tweet. Or, follow me @gregcjacobs. I have been tweeting links to posts this past year.

  3. This is a great post - I really like the idea of telling science from a "true fan's" perspective, and "trusting your audience to keep up". It is easy to see your enthusiasm and excitement about science, and I'm sure your students are swept up in that excitement too.

    Because you teach multiple grade levels, how do you adjust your portrayal of science for those different grades? I assume a 9th grader's willingness to jump into science is very different from a 12th grader's. Do you modify your "true fan's perspective" of science for those different grade levels?

  4. Great question... I modify a lot when going from 12th to 9th grade, but this "true believer" approach is not one of them. Students see that my love for learning about and doing science is authentic. While 15 and 18 year olds react to my nerdiness in different ways, they all seem to appreciate that I'm not pandering or condescending to them.