The ESPN Empire Strikes Back

espn logo 300x225 The ESPN Empire Strikes Back

On English language websites yesterday the big news surrounding ESPN is about the network acquiring Setanta’s package to air Premier League matches in the UK. But perhaps bigger news was made stateside as ESPN returned to showing regular European league football for the first time since losing La Liga rights in the early part of this decade. ESPN has acquired 20 La Liga matches to be aired on ESPN 2 next season from GOL TV in addition to many matches for Deportes. Some of these matches will be aired on tape but will still be aired on a mainstream English language channel, the first for a major European league in many years. (ESPN 2 showed midweek La Liga games in the early part of this decade and Monday EPL games in the mid 90s)  Additionally, ESPN 360 will carry upwards of a 100 La Liga matches available to AT&T, Verizon and Comcast (beginning in September) Internet customers.

Following the loss of the UEFA Champions League, the premier American sports network was left without any significant club football outside of MLS whose package performs worse for ESPN today than it did 10 years ago. The proliferation of interest in European and Latin football has marginalized ESPN’s MLS package to where it performs poorly by any standard and appeals to little more than a small niche audience at this time.

Fox Soccer has achieved decent ratings for Premier League matches but seems almost embarrassed to cross promote with MLS during PL matches, because of the anglicized nature of FSC’s audience. ESPN, on the other hand will likely use it’s La Liga telecasts that are bound to be on Sunday’s to not conflict with the network’s heavy schedule of College Football and College Basketball to promote upcoming MLS and US National Team games. This can only serve to help promote MLS as a league and ESPN’s investment in MLS as a product.  Additionally, FC Barcelona is sure to feature regularly on both ESPN 2 and ESPN360 giving and MLS/SUM partner unprecedented exposure on mainstream American TV.

International Football has performed well for ESPN in recent years. World Cup 2006 was an eye opener for the network who had seen ratings for soccer drop steadily since the US disaster at World Cup 1998. ABC stopped showing US National Team matches around 2001 and MLS ratings continued to struggle. US Soccer’s famous “Turn US On” Campaign which seemed so effective in 1999 when the USMNT defeated Germany and Argentina in front of respectable ABC audiences had petered out by 2001 as the US limped into the World Cup finishing 3rd in the CONCACAF Hexagonal.

ESPN also cut back on live MLS matches shown at the time and also cancelled MLS Extra Time, a useful weekly wrap up show hosted by Rob Stone.

But with the 2006 World Cup and the Euro 2008, ESPN rediscovered the audience for International Football. Confederations Cup 2009 is performing well and the combination of having strong international sides Brazil and Spain as well as a US team that has advanced is sure to help the ratings this week.

One more point on FSC: This summer when the English game is on holiday it is disheartening to see few original programs related to US Soccer. I like USL Breakaways but that is league produced and simply aired on FSC. No original MLS programming exists outside of match telecasts and even worse in a busy summer for the US, we haven’t seen a Center Circle or analysis show in sometime. Instead we are treated to reruns of old English matches and the occasional repeat MLS or USL game.

But if FSC will not lead, ESPN has shown it is willing to step up to the plate. While that ultimately means more exposure to Soccer for the mainstream public it also means we are deprived of the educated opinions of Max Bretos, the people’s voice of US Soccer in favor of John Harkes and Alexi Lalas who hardly have anything useful to say on air. Part of this is the culture of ESPN: Harkes opened up last year in the New York Times interview with Jack Bell and agreed with everything he said. But few of those critiques are ever heard on air from the former USMNT captain.

This is instructive in demonstrating how ESPN operates. Opinionated and critical commentators it appears are told to tone down their opinions while a company line seems to be promoted throughout the networks telecasts. FSC doesn’t have this problem, but their reluctance to push American Soccer forward coupled with the cancellation of GOL TV’s excellent weekly American Soccer program (which featured lots of MLS highlights, USL updates, Yanks Abroad and Youth National Team news) has left a void for ESPN to fill.

The reacquisition of English language La Liga rights by ESPN is just the latest step in the network re-establishing its foothold on the American soccer landscape, which had previously been ceded between 2001 and 2006.

SUPERLIGA

On an unrelated note I wanted to say a few words about the Superliga Tournament put on by SUM this season. I’ve previously made two critical points about this event which has turned my previous enthusiasm for it into indifference bordering on hostility. The first is the timing and second is the fact that the FMF participants all missed the playoffs in the most recent season/tournament.

It’s almost laughable that an event including Mexican teams would be held in June. When the event was held in late July it was the Mexican pre-season which was acceptable. MLS teams were in better form and hosted every match but it still had some degree of legitimacy. But this season the tournament is being held just four weeks after the conclusion of the FMF season when any veteran player with a secure contract is either on the beach or spending time with ones family. Thus we see youth sides trotted out by the FMF participants this week. Despite this obvious fact, some MLS fans have hailed this weekend’s victories by MLS teams as some sign that the two leagues which are miles apart in quality are somehow equals. In the last CONCACAF CL, USL-1 actually had a better record vs. the FMF than MLS, as crazy as that sounds.

But my real issue with Superliga is that MLS in its arrogance had the audacity to schedule this tournament while the USMNT is participating in a major international event. Of course it took something akin to the parting of the Red Sea for the USMNT to advance out of the group stage but that isn’t realty the point. It’s bad enough that MLS schedules matches to start right in the middle of USMNT games (I have previously pointed out that while I feel MLS needs to break for internationals, if they cannot they need to at the very least work to ensure the USMNT has exclusive windows where soccer fans aren’t conflicted between watching club or country) but playing a largely meaningless money making tournament during the USMNT’s second biggest event behind the World Cup is plain insulting.

But why should Don Garber care? The USSF doesn’t seem to want to call MLS off on any of these abuses. I can only imagine the number of New England and St Louis soccer fans who missed the dramatic events of Sunday afternoon because they were headed to the stadium to watch an exhibition tournament against Mexican youth and reserve sides. To force those dedicated fans to make a choice between their clubs no matter how minor the match and their national team is just plain wrong.

SPEAKING OF GOL TV AND THE SUBJECT OF THE USMNT HERE ARE TWO GREAT BLOGS PENNED BY FORMER MEMBERS OF THE GOL TV AMERICAN SOCCER STUDIO SHOW:

PHIL SCHOEN: WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD TIMES GONE?

JULIAN GONZALEZ: NO “U” OR “S” IN CREATIVITY

This entry was posted in ESPN, GOL TV, Leagues: Major League Soccer. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The ESPN Empire Strikes Back

  1. larry says:

    I agree on Superliga totally. The tournament is a sham and I do not understand why you promoted it in the first place. Yes it is insulting that it is being held at the same time as the Confederations Cup and even more embarrasing that the FMF teams are not only not elite, but simply youth squads from second tier clubs.

    But why even bother talking about it? Your editorial comments are right on but you are giving SUM and MLS the attention they crave by showing such anger and indignation about the tournament. Be like me: pretend like it doesn’t even exist.

    Oh and I bet Gulati was waiting for updates from the “massive” Revs game while at the hotel in South Africa. You ever wonder why the USSF doesn’t take a stand? Gulati acts like he is an MLS employee because in reality he is one thanks to the Revs.

  2. Jeremy Black says:

    the “Turn US On” Campaign – ugh… that must’ve been a nightmare for getting past spam filters!

  3. Eric says:

    I actually take an opposite view. I believe ESPN’s acqusition of La Liga rights means that the network’s disatisfaction with MLS as an anchor soccer league is at an all time high. When ESPN lost the UEFA CL I saw a piece which said they were happy that they still had MLS and the USMNT. It appeared they were not interested in European Football at all, and would just keep the Confederations Cup, World Cup and Euros because they were over the summer and did not conflict with any American sports coverage.

    Now La Liga actually is bigger than the CL from a very obvious standpoint- the games are on the weekend and even if on tape delay ESPN2 will be sacrificing some live American sporting event, be it NCAA Football, Basketball, Golf, Tennis, or even PBA Bowling to show these games. For the UEFA CL because it was midweek they weren’t sacrificing anything.

    Now that the network has moved MLS into “safer” windows with more west coast and less thursday games, La Liga will join the USMNT as the only soccer events that actually pre-empt potential other programming.

    So to me this further demonstrates the failure of MLS on the network.

    By the way, I recall that turn us on campaign. I think the USFF bought the time on ABC, and it was good as you said in 1999 but as qualifying struggles took over in 2000 and 2001 and ABC couldn’t get good advertisers it fell away. Also the world cup being at odd times in Korea didn’t help either.

  4. Hal says:

    ESPaNa? :)

    The weird thing about this Superliga was the Saturday launch. I thought Superliga was a mostly midweek thing in the past. I had to have three video windows open on my PC at one time Saturday night to view HOU-RSL and RBNY-SEA in MLS, CHI-San Luis in Superliga and CLB-FCD on the TV (FSC).

    It’s dividing the soccer fans’ interest in both the league and the SL tourney.

  5. (not the same)Eric says:

    I agree whole heartedly about FSC. I don’t have GOL or Setanta or ESPN360, so it’s my sole source of footy coverage. But right now it’s EPL reruns (already watched all of them during the regular season!), “Classic Soccer” which is hard to watch, an occasional rerun of a USMNT game, the Report (should be called “The Bobby McMahon Report” and WPS. WPS is actually the only thing I’ve been watching with consistency, but that’s not saying much (if the announcer refers to Amy Rodriguez as “A-Rod” one more time, I’m going to snap). But where’s the behind the scenes on USMNT/USWNT training? Where are the exclusive interviews with players and coaches in CONCACAF?

  6. Tony says:

    Good piece.

    The anglicized audience is very anti-MLS and anti-US Soccer. Right now they are more concerned about the UEFA U-21s than the US in the Confed Cup. FSC has sold their sole to this demogrpahic so don’t expect anything new there. No original MLS programs, no USMNT features and a USL program while good that is clearly produced as a league infomercial not some sort of analysis of what is going on in USL.

    La Liga’s audience is less snobish and more willing to embrace the american game.

    As far as Superliga is concerned the tournament was fun the first year but last year it was obviously a sham with every officials call going against the mexican teams and MLS keeping the majority of the winners prize money for themselves. Now the event is in june, features 3rd rate mexican sides and conflicts with the USMNT. It is not worth our time.

  7. CA_backpacker says:

    Maybe MLS and US soccer isn’t supported because the quality of play is so poor? Seriously, as someone who watched almost every EPL game that FSC and Setanta carrier this last season, I can’t even watch a MLS game the style of play is so slow and the quality is so lacking. I disagree with the old saw of Americans being unwilling to embrace soccer…we are, just not BAD soccer.

    With Setanta losing its EPL package, I seriously hope ESPN picks up the slack and gives me the quality footy coverage I crave in 2009-2010!

  8. Fan says:

    “Max Bretos, the people’s voice of US Soccer”

    This is perhaps the funniest thing you have ever deluded yourself into believing.

  9. Dave says:

    hopefully one day, soccer will appear on national tv in the US on saturdays and sundays instead of bloody golf.

  10. Cavan says:

    CA_backpacker, has it ever occured to you that fast does not necessarily equal good?

    The EPL games are fast but outside of the Big 4, they feature a lot of boom-ball and little possession. There’s a lot of sending a long ball down the flank and then sending a high cross into the box, hoping that someone gets on it. Not exactly attractive stuff. I personally haven’t watched the EPL since I watched Bolton vs. Watford (or maybe it was Sunderland, I can’t quite remember which debt-laden bottom-feeder it was) in 2006. I swear they only strung two passes together before they did a high cross from 40 yards away from the endline. It was just boring to me.

    Also, watch the FMF. The MLS is actually more similar to the Mexican league, in terms of style and ball movement. The MLS teams focus more on moving the ball and building. Obviously it has a different rhythm and is not quite up to the technical standards of the FMF but it’s a similar aggregate tactic.

    While the EPL can be entertaining good soccer, it is hardly the only way to approach the game. Just because a league doesn’t feature 4 rich super-teams and 16 teams that look like they’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off, doesn’t mean that it’s not good professional soccer.

  11. CA_backpacker

    I assume you will not be watching La Liga on ESPN2 because you seem to not appreciate diverse styles of football and simply want everything to be British which means fast, brutal and ultimately losing football at the top level. (England has not made the final of a major tournament since 1966.)

    I too like the PL but don’t assume it is the only proper way to play football or is somehow superior to all else because it is faster. Part of why England’s game is the way it is reflects the weather there and also that most of the pitch sizes tend to be narrow.

  12. (not the same)Eric says:

    Again, refer back to the fact that I only get FSC, ESPN and Univision/Telemundo for soccer coverage. So my staple food is EPL. Say what you will about English football, but the fact is that only one country has more Champions League titles than England and that is Spain. And an English side has been in the CL final every year since 2005 and have won it twice during that time.

    It is, objectively, a fantastic league to watch. Yes, there is a lot of drudgery in the bottom half, but that happens in every league. I’m not saying it’s the best. But for what is available to me, nothing else even comes close.

    Then again, if I had access to more than just the occasional AC Milan and Roma matches, I might be more interested in the Serie A. Similarly, once every blue moon we get a La Liga game and it’s great, but it’s not a regular thing.

  13. quakesin2kNever says:

    CA_backpacker:

    I believe that is exactly the kind of anglicized soccer snob attitude that Kartik was talking about.

    I disagree with the other comments, I love EPL I think it is the best league in the world to watch. However, it is not the only league. I also enjoy watching all the other leagues, especially MLS. Just because it’s not the best doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. Just because PBR isn’t the best beer doesn’t mean it’s not worth drinking.

  14. CA_backpacker says:

    Look, I don’t mean to be a hater, especially coming onto a MLS talk site…but I do not see how any regular season MLS game matches the skill or intensity of what you see in the EPL or La Liga, and yes, even in “bottom feeder” matches. Heck, in Europe, often the matches between teams in the bottom-half of the table are even more exciting because of the potential consequence of getting relagated, something lacking in the US in ANY professional sport, let alone soccer. After watching pretty much every EPL (and some La Liga) game that FSC and Setanta broadcast this season, even the Newcastles’ showed more team class and ability than you see in the MLS. And when the best players in the world still go to England, Spain, Germany, and Italy to play, how can we expect different?

    And “Fan”? QFT on your Max Bretos comment, lol…

  15. bayou says:

    CA_backpacker,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I devour EPL games during the season (even going to pubs at 6 in the morning to catch them when they’re not on FSC). I am a Yank. I’m a US supporter, but for the life of me I can’t watch MLS. On top of that, I have the added guilt of being a woman and not being able to stomach the women’s league, either. Both seem sluggish, clumsy, and on the MLS side, I’m seeing more and more theatrics creep in which is what ruined Italian, Argentinian, and Mexican soccer for me.

    It’s all about the EPL for me and La Liga comes in second. I will, and enjoy watching, the college games that FSC airs.

  16. kofix5 says:

    The glaring difference between ESPN’s coverage and GolTV’s coverage will the quality of the color commentators. Ray Hudson is King. My favorite thing about watching La Liga matches other than their great style is listening to Ray Hudson waxing poetic and making verbose passionate love to his beautiful game.

    Will anyone even come close to his virtuosity on ESPN?

  17. The Gaffer says:

    Hmm.. makes you wonder whether Ray Hudson would moonlight for ESPN to commentate La Liga games. Hudson has worked for them in the past. And who else other than Hudson, Phil Schoen and Lindsey Dean have more extensive knowledge of La Liga than those blokes?

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  18. quakesin2kNever says:

    “Look, I don’t mean to be a hater, especially coming onto a MLS talk site…but I do not see how any regular season MLS game matches the skill or intensity of what you see in the EPL or La Liga, and yes, even in “bottom feeder” matches.”

    Dude, no one is arguing that MLS is on par with EPL or La Liga. I agree with you. That is a straw man. It does not necessarily follow from that statement that MLS is not worth watching.

    I love watching MLS because I recognize a lot of the players from the national team. I also love watching the quakes, my home town team I grew up with. There is an emotional connection there that I just don’t get when I “pick” a favorite team to watch in another league.

    You are sounding a lot like a Yankee fan, only wanting to watch the all star teams. That’s fun but there’s also a lot of good young “future star” players in other leagues. I like watching the talent develop. The other leagues are where a lot of those EPL and La Liga players are bred when they are younger, especially like the Dutch league.

  19. bayou says:

    quakesin2kNever,
    You bring up a good point. I grew up in Montana and lived in Louisiana for six years before moving to Milwaukee. I’ve never lived in proximity to an MLS team (unless you count the Dynamo and now the Chicago Fire) so it has been hard to establish an affection for the MLS. And because the MLS was so new, there were no family ties to cultivate an affinity for the MLS or a specific team. Unlike the NFL, where my dad was a huge 49ers fan, so I grew up a 49ers fan. I do like that the MLS runs opposite the other leagues, even if FIFA doesn’t and maybe being close to Chicago will light a fire under my ass.

    The EPL I started watching back in the early 90′s in the days of the giant satellite dishes that took up a quarter of your backyard. And it took me a few years to establish a real infinity for that league, too. Only the Bundesliga did I immediately get into.

  20. spencir says:

    Hi Ineed heelp please that mean can iwatch La Liga soocer in ESPN??

    coz i have dish net work and icant see chaneel Gol tv . in dish net work!!

    anyway one heelp me please???

  21. The Gaffer says:

    La LIga will be returning to ESPN in late August/early September and will be alternating broadcasts of the Spanish league each week with GolTV.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  22. spencir says:

    thats mean at august we can watch La Liga soocer in ESPN ?? na dreally iam soo happy for that coz fox soocer channel they not have La Liga soocer ……..

    but ,,, what about GOL tv they will see La Liga soocer wery week?? this it??

    and did u know how much coz ESPN too buy it??

    thank you soo much brother iam soo happy

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