What a difference a year makes. Last summer ESPN was raving about its better than expected TV ratings for Euro 2008, which was one of the best produced tournaments soccer fans in the United States had ever seen (helped by the bonus of games being available in HD).
But since then, ESPN dumped its MLS Thursday and now they’ve lost the rights to the Champions League. However, within the next 45 days, we’ll also learn whether ESPN has missed out on acquiring the TV rights to the Premier League for the US market for seasons 2010-2013.
Looking back to ESPN’s success televising Euro 2008, I strongly believe that one of the keys to ESPN’s Euro 2008 success was the UEFA Champions League. The hype and excitement built around the Manchester United against Chelsea final in Russia was a perfect lead-in for the network to promote Euro 2008. Plus, we were so used to many of the same commentators such as Derek Rae, Adrian Healey, Tommy Smyth, Robbie Mustoe, Seamus Malin and others.
With ESPN not televising the Champions League for the next three years, I wouldn’t be surprised if its TV ratings for Euro 2012 would fall even if England can manage to qualify this time.
Unfortunately for ESPN, and for other TV sports networks, it all comes down to money. Soccer fans are hard to please. We want as many games televised as possible. We want it in HD. We want our favorite commentators. We want better programming around these shows. But the reality is that all of these things cost a lot of money when advertising rates are falling and companies are looking to cut costs to wade through this economic depression we’re experiencing.
The TV rights to the Premier League sold for $59 million for the last three seasons. In the bidding to close in the next 30-45 days, we can anticipate that the TV rights will go up in value but not significantly. But even then, can ESPN afford those rights and make a profit?
ESPN are not divorcing themselves from soccer, by any means, especially since they just added live TV coverage for this summer’s World Football Challenge. But if ESPN does make a lame bid for the Premier League TV rights in the United States, and Fox Soccer Channel (and Setanta) renew the rights once again, we can say that soccer will continue to be a niche sport in this country. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of being able to watch as many games as possible on Fox and/or Setanta, but it’s not going to take the sport to the mainstream the way that ESPN would.
Of course, if ESPN does mount a serious bid to spite Fox Soccer Channel for acquiring the UCL rights from them, it’s going to be a whole new ball game. ESPN would take the Premier League to the mainstream in this country and would far eclipse the TV ratings for the U.S.’s own Major League Soccer.