It’s a glorious time of the year for fans of English football. The race in the Premier League is heating up and we’ve seen some amazing matches during the past few weeks showing why the league can be, at times, miles ahead of its competitors. Then we had this week’s Champions League quarter-final matches which were much more exciting than the typical first leg ties are. Teams are usually very cagey, unwilling to go forward too much in case they would be hit on the counter-attack.
Except this week, we didn’t see that in the Champions League. Last night’s Liverpool against Chelsea match was one of the most entertaining battles between both teams in ages. Both teams played at an exciting pace and there was none of the anti-football tactics that we were used to whenever former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho came up against his arch-rival Rafa Benitez.
But when is all said and done, I felt a little bit of sadness watching the Champions League this week. Sadness because I know there are only a handful of games left in the Champions League that we’ll see on ESPN2 before the TV rights are handed over to Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports (in the United States) for the next three seasons.
The sadness for me is two-fold. First, I’m going to miss Derek Rae’s commentating and ESPN’s production, which has been top class. Second and most importantly of all, I’m concerned that we’re going to lose out on the casual observer who will no longer have easy access to soccer.
For die-hard soccer fans like us, it’s not much skin off our back. Most of us already subscribe to Fox Soccer Channel. But there are two massive groups of people in the United States which are going to miss out: (1) the mainstream America who get a rare opportunity to see soccer on TV in sports bars, airport lounges, office break-rooms and other places where ESPN2 is shown all the time. And (2) those soccer fans who follow the sport but who can’t afford or who are unable to get Fox Soccer Channel.
While many casual observers who watch the game at sports bars are not soccer fans, it does give the sport a chance to capture the attention and interest of those fans. The hope would be that it would get them to change their mind about soccer and to open a door to invite them in to watch more world-class football. With the Champions League TV coverage moving from ESPN to Fox Soccer Channel, we’re losing that opportunity.