A little over one year ago, it appeared that Relevent Sports’ Charlie Stillitano and Stephen Ross had overshot the runway. They had “gambled in overvaluing their product and had lost badly” went the narrative. While International Champions Cup executives wouldn’t confirm it, reports indicated that FOX Sports declined to renew its TV deal with ICC, and that NBC Sports wasn’t very interested in the property. It was left to ESPN to pick up the pieces and to put in a lower bid just to ensure that the tournament would have a “home” on US sports television.
At the time last year when Relevent Sports shopped the International Champions Cup TV rights to NBC Sports and ESPN, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Sports TV rights had been hit financially. Networks such as ESPN had been stretched dollar-wise by long-term college sports deals. Add to that the escalating cost of pro sports rights while dealing with diminishing cable subscriber numbers, Internet piracy of events plus millennials who had no intention of subscribing to a cable or satellite provider. Reportedly, the ICC could not convince suitors to meet the asking price for the TV rights, and ended up settling for less money on ESPN’s family of networks and streaming platforms.
ESPN’s retreat from broadcasting of live club soccer has ironically coincided with the accumulation of studio talent the network has built. With all this talent on ESPN’s payroll, the acquisition of the ICC made lots of sense as the network has the ability to cover European club soccer without having to find additional broadcasters. Since ESPN continues to maintain rights to various UEFA international games, they have maintained contracts with the likes of Jon Champion, Stewart Robson and Ian Darke while having Steve Nicol, Shaka Hislop and Craig Burley based in Connecticut and ready to broadcast matches.
But, until this month, the ICC simply appeared a way of just keeping ESPN in the European club soccer game.
In hindsight, ESPN couldn’t have timed their acquisition of the International Champions Cup TV rights any better.
Despite the apparent indifference of many who cover the sport in the United States, particularly those who are connected to Major League Soccer, the buzz around this year’s ICC has been remarkable. The tournament entering its fifth year appears to have cut through the clutter and risen to the level of a prominent event on the soccer calendar for supporters.
Excitement for the el Clasico Miami, which is part of the ICC, has reached a fever pitch – creating a buzz nationally about a soccer event few non US Men’s National Team games have in the last decade.
For ESPN, the July 29 el Clasico could prove to be a ratings boon in a difficult period — a Saturday primetime broadcast between two of the world’s biggest club sides would be a first on American television. Being able to place the game in primetime with some of the world’s biggest clubs in front of full stadiums makes ESPN’s ICC property a winner.
Promotion of the ICC within American soccer circles has become problematic for some who feel it might undermine the domestic club game. The MLS All Star game takes place during the ICC and is likely to include a club that is participating in the Relevent-event and will need to feed off the success of the event particularly on TV, creating a dilemma for those who are looking to promote the big event for the strongest domestic league.
Oddly, a narrative about Soccer United Marketing (SUM) having involvement in the ICC games has spread among some fans of the sport in the United States. SUM is MLS’ marketing arm and many fans of the European club game do not support MLS for ideological reasons. But the ICC is, in fact, a major thorn in the side of MLS and SUM because Relevent has been able to bring high-end club games to American soil without involving MLS clubs for the second year in a row.
Because of the conflicts with MLS, how aggressively to promote the tournament has been a consideration of many in the soccer media. ESPN in an MLS rights holder but has to maintain a certain degree of relevance among fans of the European game – making the ICC a unique opportunity to capture this audience and perhaps turn them on to future MLS’ telecasts on ESPN.
For ESPN, the ICC featuring el Clasico Miami and a Manchester Derby, could help drive fans to both Major League Soccer and the nightly ESPN FC wrap-up program. Ironically, in recent weeks ESPNFC has focused more on MLS than any other time in the program’s four-year history but has largely been a show that focuses on analysis and highlights of Europe’s top leagues.
ESPN’s gambit to spend money on ICC rights will pay off in 2017. FOX and NBC might, in hindsight, be kicking themselves for passing on a property that was inexpensive and could have helped to drive viewership to other soccer properties on the network.
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