In its years of broadcasting in North America, Setanta has been both a godsend and a detriment to the success of the Premier League in the United States. It’s been a godsend because, in combination with Fox Soccer Channel, die-hard followers of the league have been able to watch almost every single Premier League for several years. But in many ways, the channel has at the same time prevented the league from becoming more popular in this country.
Let me explain.
There’s no doubt that the Premier League has increased its visibility in the United States. But you have to wonder how popular and how much more successful financially the league would have been if its games were shown on Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN, or Fox Soccer Channel itself.
Take this most recent season as an example. Most of the major matches (and turning points) during the season were shown on Setanta Sports, not Fox Soccer Channel. Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United? Setanta. Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal that gave the Red Devils the necessary points to win the Premier League? Setanta. Carling Cup Final between Man United and Spurs? Setanta. And these are just a few examples.
For the die-hard soccer fan in the United States who subscribes to Setanta, this isn’t an issue. But we have to realize that the mainstream soccer fans in America (1) can’t afford to pay $14.95 per month to subscribe to Setanta on top of what they’re already paying for cable and/or satellite, (2) don’t have access to Setanta, and (3) may not even realize that Setanta even exists.
The issue of access is a major reason why Setanta has not come close to the number of subscribers that Fox Soccer Channel has. Sure, Setanta is available on more networks now than ever before, but barring a few exceptions, Setanta is not available on the giant cable companies such as Comcast Cable and Time Warner Cable collectively have 32 million customers. Out of those 32 million cable customers, you have to imagine that the number of soccer fans out of that massive group — even if it’s a tiny percentage of the overall figure — would be impressive by soccer viewings standards in America.
The gradual growth of Setanta in the United States may have been wise in terms of scalability, but it hasn’t helped bring the Premier League to the mainstream soccer audience.
Consider the success that Fox Soccer Channel has had since it began tracking how many viewers have been watching Premier League matches since October, 2008. Even with games shown on Sunday mornings, the network has had as many as 298,000 viewers watching a game. In comparison, industry sources estimate the number of Setanta subscribers at approximately 50,000. Obviously more games on Fox would ensure more eyeballs would be watching Premier League soccer, thus increasing the visibility of the league nationwide.
Add an ESPN to the equation, if they would be able to team with Fox Soccer Channel for the US TV rights for 2010-2013, and you can imagine how much more effective the results would be in bringing the Premier League to the American public.
Sure, there are disadvantages to having ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel show Premier League games. There’s the issue of Fox only having its one soccer channel and being unable to show more than one game simultaneously (Setanta has its Xtra channel on DirecTV to show additional games). And then there’s the issue of ESPN giving priority to other American sports instead of soccer, thereby bumping some of the games to tape-delay (as they’ll do with La Liga in the 2009-2010 season and beyond). But the reality is that there is no happy medium. If the Premier League is to become more popular on TV in the United States, then not every game will be available. Likewise, with a Setanta and Fox Soccer Channel combination, you could see the majority of games available throughout the season, as you do now, but the masses won’t see the games.
The perfect solution is to have all of the games available online, legally and at an affordable price. We’re still years away from that happening, but in the meantime we’ll continue to watch the developments regarding Setanta US and their fight to survive. It should be an dramatic and revealing summer, no doubt.