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.
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: