Soccer on television in the United States will become a whole lot more interesting in the next 12 months. Beginning two weeks from now, FOX Broadcasting Company, better known as FOX, will televise the first Premier League game on national television. While the game itself will only be a tape delay broadcast, it represents a historic and seismic shift in how the sport that “no one watches” has entered the lives of mainstream USA.
The September 18th tape-delay game between Manchester United and Chelsea will air on a Sunday afternoon before or after NFL programming. If you had to pick an ideal spot to showcase the English Premier League, this is it. While the vast majority of sports fans couldn’t care less about the sport of soccer, the size of the NFL TV viewing audience is so gigantic that even if a small portion of viewers tune into the game from Old Trafford either out of curiosity or interest, this will represent a significant TV ratings number.
Among the diehard soccer fans in the United States, the Premier League is an institution. TV ratings on FOX Soccer and ESPN2 continue to soar year-over-year. Mention an EPL game in conversation with friends or strangers, and you’re more likely to get someone saying something inteligible than the bizarre looks or silence that greeted you a decade ago. While the Premier League has certainly not arrived in the United States, the growth of the league in America can not be underestimated especially after you consider the successful pre-season tours that clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City had this past summer.
While the vast majority of soccer fans in the United States who are interested in quality will watch the live broadcast of United against Chelsea earlier in the morning on FOX Soccer, having the game shown on nationwide television would have been inconceivable a few years ago. After successful World Cup broadcasts by ESPN plus the Champions League Final being shown on FOX earlier this year, the networks have shown sponsors that not only is there a rising interest in the sport, but that the games attract a sizable and impressionable audience of men, aged 18-35.
FOX and ESPN are not the only ones who have paid attention to the soaring TV ratings. NBC recently signed a deal with MLS to begin showing live telecasts beginning with the 2012 season. While the majority of games will be shown on Versus, soon to be rebranded as NBC Sports Network, NBC — the national TV network — will broadcast two regular season MLS games, two playoff games and two games featuring the US men’s national team. In addition to FOX’s tape delay broadcast of Man United against Chelsea, FOX will show the return fixture of Chelsea against Man United live on Super Bowl Sunday as well as October 2011’s tape delay match between Spurs and Arsenal, and November’s tape delay broadcast of Chelsea against Liverpool.
Collectively, NBC and FOX will make a significant impact on the number of Americans who’ll watch soccer on free-to-air television in the next 12 months. But while soccer fans and sports fans both win, you have to consider that there are two battles going on at the same time. The first is FOX against NBC, both of whom are competing for TV ratings. But the second battle is MLS against EPL. Personally, I think there’s enough room in most people’s lives for soccer viewing on NBC and FOX, as well as MLS and EPL, but in love and war, there are always winners and losers. And it’ll be especially interesting to see how the TV ratings between the Premier League and MLS compare.
FOX’s Premier League coverage will have a head-start over NBC. Recently acquired by Comcast, NBC’s live coverage won’t begin until as early as March. By that point, FOX and the Premier League will have shown three tape-delayed matches and one live game. And based on the TV ratings for those broadcasts, you have to wonder what’s next for the Premier League on US television? Could more games be broadcast live on FOX? We’ll have to wait and see what the TV ratings are before jumping ahead of ourselves.