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JAN
30
3 YEARS

Super Bowl? Is That On GolTV?

One man's newfound appreciation of the beautiful game, via Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV

Sports Coverage
Dino Panato/Getty Images

A strange thing is on the screen virtually every time I turn on any television in my house.

Soccer. Or football -- futbol -- if you will.

Heading into this Sunday’s Super Bowl, that might seem like an odd thing. But despite following my beloved San Francisco 49ers on a magnificently unexpected race to within one game of said Super Bowl, nothing else has really changed.

Soccer -- it’s always on.

Specifically, GolTV is on. And when it’s on, soccer is on -- 24 hours a day.

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For those of you who already bask in the brilliant idea that is GolTV, forgive this latecomer. And for people who don’t really like soccer – and I would imagine that number is immense, because I was in that group most of my life – spare a few minutes about “the beautiful game” and how there are parallels to American sports fanaticism. There’s also a little TV story in here somewhere – about how the NFL Network, NHL Network, MLB Network, NBA TV and any other single-sport channel could vastly improve its worth by following the lead of GolTV.

But let’s start with hating soccer. Never played it as a kid. Raised on American sports only. And for most of my life, never really watched – and found it boring when I did. “Are you watching the match?” a neighbor once asked when I knocked on his door, apparently during some big soccer thing. “No. I’m American.”

I’m going to make an assumption here that the vast majority of people in this country completely understand this story so far. Like a lot of kids in the United States – USA! USA! USA! – I went to sleep at night on NFL sheets (and Major League Baseball sheets, too). Long before I became completely partisan – city-specific, as it should be – I was just a kid in love with all the colors and logos and names of all of these sports teams (bear with me – this part is important later).

Then I had kids. And kids in this country play a lot of soccer (even if it’s discouraged as a Euro thing). Slowly I learned the game – rules, strategy and eventually the artistry. Because they were into it, we watched major matches, the Olympics and, of course, the World Cup.

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My wife fell for Diego Forlan’s skills (and probably his looks, sure). Both my kids got Landon Donovan jerseys (and later my daughter got a Hope Solo jersey). We tried to buy Tim Howard jerseys, too. Even the Everton one (that’s a joke you’ll get later). My daughter took to Argentina but ultimately rooted for Spain, as did my son. I went with the Dutch.

Clearly, I started to like soccer. (Except the flopping. God, I hate that. But neither do I like it in the NBA.) I’m not ashamed of this soccer-loving development. The point is, despite everything I knew about the sport (low-scoring, flopping, colored cards, insane fans who sing a lot) – things that were meant to deter me --  the beautiful game was growing on me. And with my daughter (11) and son (8) having games and tournaments all the time, well, I just woke up one day completely converted. Perhaps the seed was planted ages ago, pre-kids, when I read Nick Hornby’s wonderful book, Fever Pitch. I just substituted the 49ers for Arsenal and I understood the emotions completely.

Watching soccer is never going to be more interesting to me than the NFL. But unless I’m watching my beloved Giants, well, baseball is kind of a push. The NBA has become boring and predictable (most games decided in the last two minutes) and I’d watch pretty much any soccer game instead. Strangely, I like hockey almost more than anything sans the NFL – and I’m a California native – so that’s nearly level with soccer as well.

I don’t watch NASCAR (but I will watch Formula 1, which the snide among you might think makes a lot of sense right about now).

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Anyway, cut to a couple of months ago and a very long trip around the DirecTV “dial” ends up on Fox Soccer Channel. I like it. A lot. My son likes it – way more than a lot. Ah, but then we roll over to GolTV.

Awesome. It’s 24 hours of soccer with a few studio highlight shows and specials mixed in – the exact opposite strategy of most American sports channels that believe in talking heads above all.

So the family ends up watching random soccer games. God help me, I quickly become addicted. Spanish, Italian, German games come and go with frequency. I’m saturating in the channel and not moving. The TV goes off and when it comes back on – GolTV is there. Almost always. Do I change it? Hell no – I watch a couple of teams in the Bundesliga (German league) and can’t believe I’m doing it the entire time. I don’t know the players or the teams (hell, barely the cities). Then it’s back to La Liga (Spanish league) and the inevitable clips of Barcelona and Real Madrid which are like crack (OK, sugar) to my son and also to me – those being about the only two teams I know well enough to mention out loud.

What’s the attraction? Outside of the uniquely addicting combination of English on GolTV and its fanatical devotion to showing what amounts to any game from any city at any time of day – I think it has something to do with that feeling I got dreaming in those NFL and MLB sheets.

See, in soccer, I have no allegiance. So the team names, uniform colors, fans, stadium – it’s all new and exciting without city-specific or league-specific prejudice. I can like the Juventus colors, jerseys and Amazon.com-available apparel without knowing much about Juve (picking up the slang there, folks). I can like Lionel Messi (my son’s favorite player) and Chicharito and Kaka and any player I choose without it feeling like a Kobe or Peyton or Sidney Crosby kind of thing, which would interfere with teams I actually root for when I’m being my normal American sporting self.

I can wonder why Scotland has a club named Celtic – complete with four-leaf clover logo – and Ireland doesn’t (or that it’s Celtic with a soft “c” American style – what’s up with that?).

In fact, I can walk up to the Irish dad of one of my son’s classmates and ask him. From that conversation I can find out he had kind of an NFL sheets experience as well when he was a kid – with soccer teams substituted for football teams – you know what I mean. Later he lived near the Arsenal pitch. And despite being Irish, he copped to getting his kids Bayern Munich apparel and liking Leeds United a lot.

And believe it or not, I pretty much understand that entire paragraph.

(Hell, I’m proud of it. Wait until I know more about Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur – I’ll be even more insufferable.)

What’s fueling this grown-up appreciation of the beautiful game (and child-like fascination with the logos and jerseys and team names) is GolTV and, to a slightly lesser extent Fox Soccer Channel. It’s total immersion, singular-vision insanity. And, as a TV critic, I’m wondering why the above-mentioned American sports channels don’t copy the format a little more aggressively (my money says people like watching sports more than they do watching four so-called experts talk said sport from a studio).

As a die-hard baseball fan, I’d like to see some games from the winter leagues (Latin America) and Japan. When the NBA was in a standoff with its players, I would have liked to watch what was going on in the Europe leagues.

International hockey? Sure. Maybe even Canadian football.

Unless I missed it, those options were never presented via American television. All I got instead was a lot of repetitive scores, faux analysis and the East Coast bias of ESPN.

For home-turf sports networks, I’d say look to Europe for guidance. Stop talking about the games and show the games. It’s a pretty simple formula. And don’t make me pay for those extra games either, damn it.

As for GolTV and Fox Soccer Channel, I say thank you for enabling this relative newbie’s newfound addiction with total immersion in the sport. I can now tell Ray Hudson stories (soccer announcer) like I was there from the beginning and pretty soon I’ll know what FC Schalke 04 is all about – or at least have their hat.

Lastly, my daughter showed me a picture of my son as a baby the other day. I’d seen the picture a hundred times. “Look closer!” she said. And there it was: A GolTV soccer ball that the channel must have sent as swag about eight years earlier. Hmmm. Maybe that has something to do with the revolution on my TV set.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine