My simple answer is no, not a chance. However others feel differently. Here is a recent give and take I had with “the Gaffer” from EPL Talk.com. The Gaffer is a friend of mine and generally a very good guy. He however, like many reared on European football in this country who don’t watch other American sports or soccer leagues in this hemisphere live in vacuum about the popularity of European soccer in the United States as well as the marketing success of MLS in many circles. Here is the exchange, and as always feedback is welcome. Am I all wet in my theory that the Premier League has hit its apex of American popularity or is the Gaffer correct in implying not only that the PL will continue to grow but that it will be the most popular soccer league in the US?
Kartik’s initial post:
As we’ve talked about before, the market for the Premier League is limited in the US, and quite frankly is at its ceiling, or at least I believe it is at its ceiling. I’m not sure why any PL club would come here unless it is specifically for training purposes but the weather in the summer heat of the US can sap energy so for that it’s really not a good idea either.
The Gaffer’s reply:
In a 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.”
More often than not, I agree with Krishnaiyer — except this time, and here’s why:
Out of the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Typically I too agree with you 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 necessarily 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 is the gold standard in American sports and as some college football and basketball leagues have discovered signing a TV contract with anyone else limits your national exposure.
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.