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Why the Premier League Can Only Get Bigger in the U.S.

premierleague Why the Premier League Can Only Get Bigger in the U.S.In a recent reply to an article on EPL Talk, a reader commented that “the market for the Premier League is limited in the US, and quite frankly is at its ceiling.”

That comment was posted by Kartik Krishnaiyer, a regular contributor, expert on U.S. soccer and friend of mine. If you’ve been reading the EPL Talk and Major League Soccer Talk blogs or listening to the respective podcasts for quite some time, you’re undoubtedly familiar with him.

More often than not, I agree with Krishnaiyer — except this time, and here’s why:

  1. Out of the 28 matches shown on U.S. television this past weekend, there were more than twice as many Premier League matches shown than the homegrown Major League Soccer. In fact, the top leagues in England, Spain and Italy all were shown more often than MLS, which had three matches televised.While the sport of soccer in the United States still isn’t in the mainstream, there are still loads of U.S. residents becoming attracted to the game for the first time (or are being reacquainted with it). If they’re seeking soccer on television, chances are that they’ll find the EPL before Major League Soccer.
  2. When soccer fans want to seek out the most entertaining league in the world, they’ll turn to the Premier League. La Liga has hit a slump this season with both Barca and Real Madrid underwhelming the viewing public. Plus, the early part of the season was plagued with the media war in Spain, which hurt the league’s global appeal including in the U.S.
  3. The Premier League’s dominance in the Champions League ensures that English teams are featured front-and-center in what is arguably the world’s top club tournament.Also, the EPL continues to make massive improvements on the pitch (in the form of new star signings and the beneficial influence of foreign managers). The Premiership will continue to be the league that soccer aficionados will turn to each weekend especially as they beat some of the best teams in the world (from other soccer giant countries such as Italy and Spain). Ultimately, the Premier League is gaining more fans in the United States than losing them.
  4. Fourth and finally, no other league is marketed as well as the Premier League with its industry-leading TV productions. The camera angles and the way that matches are televised live have no equal. Serie A and La Liga, in comparison, are lightyears behind.

For a league that is still revered by many in the United States, the Premiership has a lot of potential to grow in this country. Close to hitting its ceiling? Far from it. America has seen nothing yet.

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About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
View all posts by Christopher Harris →

11 Responses to Why the Premier League Can Only Get Bigger in the U.S.

  1. Kartik says:

    Gaffer,

    Typically I too agree with you (but not all of the other writers on your site but that is a topic for another day) but here I think you are fundamentally misreading the American populace and the sporting culture in this country if you believe growth potential exists for a foreign league with few true first generation ethnic ties in this country. As someone who has seen this from multiple perspectives, as a soccer fan in a decidedly hostile environment to the game and as someone who follows so-called niche sports that only become truly mainstream during large events (like being a die in the wool College Basketball fan in Florida, an American Football crazed state for over twenty years), and trying to discuss anything other Baseball among New Yorkers in the summer, I understand a little bit about how difficult it is to cut through the clutter in our sports culture and how difficult it is to hold anybody’s attention.

    Let’s go point by point.

    1) True more Premier League games are available on premium platforms than MLS matches. But this isn’t entirely fair when you consider the PL has six more teams and plays three more games a weekend in addition to the fact that every PL match available is on a premium platform, which quite frankly most non hard core fans are not going to pay extra for. I’ll get more into the American Ethos in a little bit but the reality of the situation is even among those casual sports fans who get Fox Soccer Channel, very few even pay attention to what is on the channel.

    Last week the various ESPN platforms offered ten soccer matches. Sports fans often make ESPN related channels their default channels. Sports bars simply leave their many TVs on ESPN’s channels. The breakdown for last week on ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPN Classic/ESPNP 360 was two MLS matches in primetime on ESPN 2, four Serie A matches on ESPN 360, two CL matches on ESPN 2 and two tape delayed CL matches on ESPN Classic.

    I don’t like the Disney sports empire run by ESPN, but in many cases American sports fans are so conditioned to watching ESPN they don’t search for events on second tier channels. The Premier League and La Liga were once on ESPN in this country but neither garnered the viewer ship for ESPN to continue their investment.

    ESPN and ABC however understand if the game is ever going to be successful among casual sports fans it will be an American league featuring mostly American players. Casual sports fans have very little connection to the British Isles and have other sporting interests that tough their daily lives even on the job. (More on this below)

    2. Gaffer, you don’t seem to understand that the majority of Soccer fans in this country who seek Soccer out on a regular basis on TV (not those casual fans who pay attention every time the World Cup roles around) are Latin and frankly don’t care about English Football and often times have answered in public opinion surveys that the quality of football is less important to them then having a connection to the game. (This is not true necessarily with South American fans as the data I have seen shows, but especially true with Central American and Mexican fans who represent the bulk of Soccer fans in the US). It is no accident while the PL and LaLiga cannot get off of premium channels, the Mexican League has 3-4 matches every week on over the air channels and the ratings for Mexican Football in the US exceed even the NHL. It also no coincidence that ESPN 2’s two highest rated football matches since World Cup 2006 have not been Champions League matches but US-Mexico clashes in February of 2007 and again February 2008. The Mexican League and MLS have a more direct connection to local audiences even if the Football is inferior. (I happen to believe the Mexican League is under rated internationally and many Mexican clubs would defeat PL clubs)

    Mexican-American fans do not care about the Premier League even if the quality is good and the game is more exciting than Spain, now that Gio Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, Rafa Marquez and other Mexican players are in Spain it will command some of their attention but still not the attention their domestic league receives.

    Now as far as casual American fans, not enough watch the Premier League or care on a week in/week out basis for the game to grow. Not enough Americans will care about an early morning football match when so much else on the American sporting landscape commands their attention. I don’t count myself among these people but I understand it. Baseball, a sport I have despised since I was child is as American as apple pie and for many working folks in large northeastern and Midwestern cities represented what football does in places like Newcastle and Liverpool. American College Football is culturally ingrained in the South, Midwest and Plains States the way Football is in Europe and Latin America. I have fought an uphill battle for almost 25 years trying to get people in Florida, a College Football mad state to pay attention to College Basketball, a sport with local schools playing and local athletes’ competiting. While this is compelling for some and Basketball certainly has more visibility now than ever in the state it is still very much a second tier, second priority sport but still has far more interest than non-Latin soccer ever will here.

    Now imagine how difficult it is to get the average American sports fans to pay attention to a league half a world away whose players they have no connection to and whose cities they’ve never seen. It’s just not in the American Ethos to be watching a foreign league over your own league. Sure it works for Latte sipping, European oriented people, but that isn’t even enough people to sustain any sporting product in this country and many of those same sophisticates see Football as a working class game they look down upon. Try telling my father, a soccer fan who reminisces about seeing Pushkas come to India and play when he was a kid in the 1950’s to watch the Premier League and he’ll tell me we have our own league here and that’s what he wants to watch (unless Fulham with their American contingent is playing.) The bottom line is that my father is not alone. Americans are intensely nationalistic which is why the Olympics are a bigger deal here than in Europe or Asia. That’s why unlike in Europe, the Champions League will never have the following or media interest the World Cup has developed here. That is because the US competes in the World Cup. Americans ultimately want to root for the United States, not Real Madrid or Liverpool.

    The Premier League has a niche audience here in the US and has reached its niche already. Maybe it is not at a ceiling but the ceiling is very very low, I assure you.

    3. You’ve just made my point for me. I wish it were different but the number of true club soccer aficionados is very low in this country and by and large they already watch the Premier League. Sure the PL is the choice for soccer aficionados. That’s why I watch it. But even the casual soccer fans I know will only watch the US National Team and maybe the MLS Cup or Champions League final. They are not going out of their way to buy Setanta to watch Wigan play Bolton.

    4. I totally disagree. This has no bearing on American interest but the Bundesliga production is far, far superior to the work TWI does with PL matches. It’s not even close. German TV in general is light years ahead of British TV. Picking Spain and Italy less advanced nations economically to the UK isn’t fair. French and German TV in general is much better produced than UK TV. But the production quality is still inferior to what any American network produces for American sports, or when ESPN/ABC really go all out for Soccer as they do for many US National Team matches and the MLS Cup Final.

    Gaffer you point of view is normally sound but I believe your doing some cheerleading for British football dreaming of the day Americans are talking on the job or on call in radio about an Arsenal/Manchester United game. I actually hope you are right but I am certain that the day you dream of will never come. If the day does somehow come it will be because of the success of MLS, an American league and the US National team on the world stage.

  2. The Gaffer says:

    Kartik,

    Thanks for the detailed response. Despite your valid response, I still feel the Premier League — as the top soccer league in the world — has room to grow in the country.

    Yes, the Latin population that are into soccer don’t care, for the most part, about the Prem. But I feel there’s definitely plenty of room for both the Premier League and Mexican league in the United States.

    While Major League Soccer will continue to grow in this country, it still doesn’t have teams that are in the local vicinities of many major cities. For those people, myself included, we can tune into television to watch the best soccer there is to offer, the EPL.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  3. Bob says:

    I have to completely agree with Kartik. As an american soccer fan I identify with alot of the things he says. I cant ever recall watching a full EPL game, mostly becuase I am not willing as he said to purchase something like sentanta and secondly becuase I have no emotional interest in the league. The only teams I follow at all are Fulham and Everton, and that is becuase of the american players such as Tim Howard and others. I do however watch several MLS games a week, I care much more about my league than some other countries. Games between US teams and Foriegn teams (especially mexico) have my interest 1000 times more than something like Barca vs Madrid or Manchester United vs Liverpool. Being born in Germany I like Bundesliga but that is simply to hard to follow and watch in the US. I have no way of watching the games, and even with that I like the MLS and US National team much more.

    Another reason is that simply put, I want to the USA to be the best in the world. Me and probably every other american soccer fan does to. Watching EPL games is not going to do that, going to and watching MLS games is.

    I also think many of the things he says holds true with non soccer fans to. While I can get some of my friends to watch the USA-Mexico game or chicago in the MLS cup playoffs, good luck trying to get them to watch some european game. The reason is that they like their town and country, and being in the U.S we always have someone to make fun of after we beat their country. ( and sometimes vice versa)

    Simply put americans like “american” better, and I think the biggest facor in choosing a league to follow is having some connection that makes you care.

  4. Stan says:

    MLS almost certainly gets more “random hits” in the average month than the Prem does, due to the better carry rates and channel positions of the channels.

    But that said, the Prem is the richest and most glamorous league in the world. It is the league that people who say MLS isn’t good enough (and we’re not just talking hardcores here, this is the complaint outsiders to the game raise as well) more often than not pose as a contrast.

    I cannot imagine that, as the interest in professional soccer grows in this country, as it obviously is growing right now, that the Prem won’t grow alongside. This should continue to be true until at least that point where the difference between the Prem and MLS are more a matter of nuance and less a matter of night and day like they are now.

    Someday in the future where if you rated the level of play in the Prem as a 10, MLS would score a 7, then yes I could see a lot of defections. Until that day, the Prem should gro as pro soccer in general grows.

  5. Mario in SJ says:

    I’m in total agreement with Bob. Americans will watch when something or someone American is competing.
    While the recent Arsenal/Liverpool CL game was fantastic there there is no connection for a large number of American/Latino fans. On the other hand, the Super Liga will be a stunner this year because the MLS teams who competed last year were very competitive. Our Latino friends as well as the other US soccer fans will be ‘tuning in’ in droves….there is a connection!

  6. I agree with the Wanker says:

    I agree with Bob and Mario in SJ but wish Gaffer were correct. But the truth is European Football is nowhere in this country. Yes lots and lots of it on premium channels but not enough on mainstream outlets and almost no newspaper or Sportscenter coverage.

    Superliga is the biggest soccer event now in the US as far as interest. Damn that Landon Donovan giving the trophy to a Mexican team last year.

  7. Kartik says:

    Reply #6, you aren’t calling me a wanker, I hope?

  8. Bob says:

    Stan,

    As you bring up the quality between the leagues I think it is important to mention that the gap is much smaller than most people believe. “MLS Sucks”, is the comment when you ever menion the league. But as the years goe by more and more people are realizing that it doesnt, and assuming that it keeps improving this is the only possible thing that can happen.

    As it stands now the All star team(who practice only once before playing) beat teams such as Chelsea, and other decorated european teams. Regardless of being in the preseason that is an acomplishment, if the league sucked as much as most people say then that team would be getting blown out 5-0 at least.

    The national team is in the top 20 in the world, and its chances at beating a team such as england are very reasonable.

    A perfect example of this is south americans, I find in general they respect the league far more than europeons. The reason is that they see US soccer teams come up against theres all the time. They realize that for the most part it is pretty even. They have been exposed to the league through international competitions and recognize it for what it is. Europeons by contrast have not seen much of the league and stick to the stereotypical “americans suck at soccer”.

    For instance exchange students from mexico come up to me and say” Lets go to an MLS game” I want to see one while I am here. Europeons who have not been exposed to the league only make snide comments.

    As time goes by people can only learn more and more about it and see the quality for themselves. As they do they will respect the league and have no problem choosing it over the EPL.

    Ignorance is the main factor keeping EPL interest alive today. The other factor is being from europe, but as the generations go by the conection to europe will be less and less. The connection to the US will be more and more. The quality of the US league will go up.

    As I see it interst can only go down.

  9. Geoff McPherson says:

    The EPL with grow in the US as long as it stays competitive, unfortunately the EPL is continuing to produce a very uncompetitive product. The most successful sport in the US is the NFL (which I have little time for) is successful because it is extremely competitive. The EPL has a lot to learn from the NFL and is a good 15 – 20 years behind marketing a sports product to a very sophisticated sports marketed audience.

    One other point the MLS fan base and the EPL fans overlap but are two very different markets.

  10. john says:

    Prem League interest will grow as interest in MLS (and soccer in general) grows in the US, as Stan said. In addition to other reasons mentioned, I think it’s also worth mentioning that EPL also enjoys an advantage in comparison to other foreign leagues due to the common language and outlook that Americans share with the English and EPL. It’s just harder to get excited about leagues that aren’t very English language accessible.

  11. Liverpool John says:

    I used to be on the other side of this argument, but I now realize the error of my former ways.

    DC United is massive in metro area and created a soccer culture. I’m vactioning right now in Florida and found that DC United is a brand name down here. The English league by comparison is only followed in a very specific subgroup because of lack of access to FSC and Setanta. Kartik forgot to mention the weekly spanish broadcast on Univision of MLS games whicfh reaches that Latin audience he described as well as offering another option if you have cable or even old fashioned doggy ears!

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