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ESPN Has The Power To Make Soccer Successful In America

espn-logo.gifESPN has finally cracked the code of how to produce soccer for the American audience. Show it in high definition, feature a strong team of commentators, promote the tournament across your networks, don’t cut the national anthems, include advertising at appropriate moments, reduce the hype and include intelligent discussions during the pre-game, halftime and post-game parts of the show.

Instead of making soccer fans cringe, the network provided one month of Euro 2008 coverage that fans could believe in. Sure, the games were watched mostly by soccer aficionados, but the tournament also permeated mainstream America. From my own experience, I saw Euro 2008 games on TVs at airports, my local gym, Whole Foods Market, local sport bars and, most importantly, inside the homes of Americans who are slowly warming to the game.

The challenge for the growth of the sport in this country is that many Americans don’t even realize that Fox Soccer Channel, Setanta Sports and GolTV even exist. For the sport to enter America’s consciousness, it needs to be on ESPN regularly. Yes, ESPN already carries some Major League Soccer games as well as internationals, but the time is ripe for the Disney owned network to invest more heavily in soccer by aggressively bidding for the next TV rights to the Premier League, which will be opened to bidders later this year.

ESPN has come a long way in such a short time. It was less than a year ago when David Beckham made his debut for LA Galaxy when the production of the game by ESPN was such a disgrace. ESPN focused so much time during the game on shots of Beckham on the bench, celebrities in the stands and updates from the touchlines instead of focusing on the game that was being played on the field. In less than a year, they’ve completely turned the corner. Congratulations ESPN on a fantastic month-long production. Now we just need you to keep the love coming.

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  1. philvich

    April 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    there is so much whining about the way ESPN botched the coverage. there is no doubt that they did botch it, but they have learned from their mistakes and are getting better, and that is the point you make in the article.

    it amazes me that we still are too closed minded to consider how to actually improve the game. there are few simple tweaks that would make the game a big winner with american sports fan.

    1. how about putting up a clock. a clock that stops when the ball is out of play, thus reducing the pussyfooting around to stall while the clock is ticking down. this is essentially cheating but is consider “crafty” by soccer “in the knows”. americans have difficulty accepting this sort of blatant cheating. have a clock that actually show the time left in the game and have it stop when the ball is out of play. make halves be less time (maybe 30 minutes) so the total game time remains roughly the same.

    2. PK’s. Seriously? make a penalty in the box and that results in a 80% chance of getting a goal? PK contest at end of game to decide winner? stupid. move the spot of the PK back to lower the percentage. can you imagine american sports fans being ok with NFL games tied at the end of regulation being decided by kicking extra points? there would be riots.

    3. only 2 or 3 subs per game? we came to watch soccer players play, not endurance runners compete to see who can outlast each other running up and down the field. if the players are completely fatigued, are we really seeing their true soccer skills? i dont think so. make subs more liberal, either like baseball or maybe fully open like hockey.

    4. off sides. again, seriously? make it like hockey, dont let people just camp down at the other end, but enough with the ticky tack little baby games that are played to get people to be offsides.

    i could go on, but just start with these basics. soccer fans, grow up, dont try to act like this would ruin the game, it would greatly improve it. open your mind and just think about it.

  2. Footballer

    March 13, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I hope that football never takes off in America and that it stays the way it is. Or regresses. I don’t trust you guys one bit with our sport

  3. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    I sincerely apologize. The overnight for the MLS match was a 1.2 which is very respectable for a noon ET start. I had heard it as a 0.2. Obviously a big difference.

    US Open Cup night tonight with some good action online. Crystal Palace Baltimore, Miami FC, Carolina, and Charleston have all scored first against MLS opposition.

  4. CFTV

    July 1, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    FYI the ESPY nominations were just released and ESPN is doing a Best MLS Player Award with Angel, Beckham, Donavon, Emillio, Donavon, and Blanco for the award. Cristiano Ronaldo is up for Best International Male Athlete with Kaka, Manu Ginobilli, and Rafael Nadel.

  5. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Great point Glen Garry.

    I recall a time when the West Palm affiliate of NBC (CH 5) ran local programming instead of College Basketball. This was back when NBC had college basketball and the sport was as unpopular in Florida as Soccer was.

    I spoke to someone close to the Galaxy just now and he made an excuse for me when I told him the pathetic rating of the Galaxy game.

    “It was 9 am out here, and people like me simply tivo-ed the game.”

    Pathetic. I wonder if people still care to argue with me about MLS’ finances and the opportunity USL does have in some respects to compete?

  6. glengarry

    July 1, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    re: games from Europe being aired on ABC —

    the biggest reason this will never happen is the time they would air live: weekday afternoons, the programming time is the responsibility of the local affiliates (the dudes who do your local news and air crap like Judge Judy and Jeopardy) … the affiliates derive almost all of their revenues from the ad sales at this time. And if you think the attitude is provincial at ABC, I can’t even begin to tell you how bad it is at the affiliates. Instead of having a situation where some affiliates run soccer and others judge judy (and thus being hard to advertise / frustrating for consumers) — the network wisely just kept all the weekday stuff on cable.

  7. jm

    July 1, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Vedran, I am not sure I understand your claim that American television does not want soccer to succeed because it would drain viewers from other sports. Why should that be true? Do different sports really compete with viewers that directly? It seems that ESPN is always promoting other programming, trying to bring in the viewers from other demographics (since the fanbase for American football and baseball, etc. are pretty solid) with other athletic competitions, and to bring viewers from their mainline demographics on for more television (such as their increased focus on Arena Football).

    Indeed, some soccer leagues look like an excellent opportunity for ESPN to produce sports programming that does not compete with mainstream American sports. Since the best leagues in the world are overseas, the matches are often at “odd” times for American audiences. Other than perhaps weekend afternoons, soccer does not compete with baseball (and of course, ESPN cannot, by contract, carry baseball at those times), and it competes with only some NFL action (which ESPN does not carry).

    ESPN has a lot to gain from promoting soccer, and I’m not sure why we should suspect them of colluding directly or indirectly with mainstream American sports to keep soccer ratings down.

  8. Jeff Hash

    July 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Kartik, are you sure about that number for MLS? I had that as a 1.2 from another website.

  9. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Let me add the Gold Cup and Copa numbers are for Univision. GOL TV and FSC are not included. The 2006 World Cup final got an over night of 14.1 if you add Univision and ABC together, so however you spin it the World Cup still blew the Euros, the Gold Cup and Copa America out of the water.

  10. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    3.1 overnight for the Euro Championship

    That compares with an 8.6 for the 2006 World Cup Final a 3.3 for the 2007 Gold Cup Final and a 1.1 for the 2007 Copa America final.

    So Gaffer’s point has been proven about the Euros vis a vis the Copa America based on the ratings, and the Euros almost beat the Gold Cup which shocks me.

    MLS got a 0.2 leading in. Pathetic and shameful. Was Beckham really worth it with those numbers?

  11. eplnfl

    July 1, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    More and more major sporting events are on cable in the US. That goes across the board from NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB. You will find that cable will have most of the action on sports in the US media except for the league finals which remain on “free TV”. So to get into a discussion that the sport is not doing well unless it’s on over the air TV is no longer a relevant argument.

    BTW, anyone have and any rating for the final?

  12. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    US MNT games were almost entirely on ABC from the period between 1995 and 2003 which is why today they being relegated to ESPN 2 and ESPN Classic to me is a step of regression for Soccer in this country.

    I have on tape, the qualifier vs Mexico in 1997, friendlies vs Germany in 1999, Argentina in 1999, Brazil in 2001 and Argentina in 2003. All five matches were on ABC.

  13. betsy's bolton bum baster

    July 1, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    You are wrong Vedran. ESPN is owned by Disney just like ABC and you can’t just say that ESPN has the power to push network programming aside for European soccer. EURO 2008 does not belong on American network television, there is not relevance. Keep it on ESPN, which has quite a large spread throughout the country, and soccer will do just fine. I wish they would show USMNT matches on network television though.

  14. soccr tease

    July 1, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Kartik has a good point, although some of the FA Cup games are extremely boring. Champions League, however, is very exciting football, would be great exposure to European Club Football, and would be a great way to get more American Sports fans interested in the game, and conversely the premiere league, la liga, etc. Barking up the right tree but the wrong branch.


  15. Vedran

    July 1, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    I cannot give credit to ESPN/ Disney, for bringing more awareness to the sport. They are still not doing enough and it’s a shame. Instead of having all games on ABC, they botched it and showed games throughout their network of channels. In order to bring more live to the sport in the states, the games need to be on regular television where all can watch.

    The media outlets do not want soccer/ football to succeed otherwise other American sports will suffer and that is a no no. They will do a little for the sport for the sake of doing. How can I be happy about ESPN’s coverage when they placed a match on their Classic network, when instead it should have been on ESPN. They place that boring sport of baseball instead. That is the difference.

  16. Phil McThomas

    July 1, 2008 at 11:53 am

    My only worry with ESPN is whether they have the capacity to show a decent number of games when, say, College Football or March Madness is in full swing.

    At least with FSC/Setanta there are no worries on that front.

  17. Simon Burke

    July 1, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Not a bad idea as an introduction Kartik – though only an intro – start there and then go for the Prem.

  18. Kartik

    July 1, 2008 at 9:50 am

    I think we’ve talked about the void in the summer time for sports in US as opposed to the fall and spring when the EPL is played. Getting used to a season with no knock out tournament and largely meaningless mid table matches in a saturated sports market isn’t going to work for ESPN.

    For those of you dying to see English football on ESPN: Here is a better bet, and one I would love to see.


    Yes, the romance of the cup will win over casual American fans more than the Premier League and the rights will cost much less.

    The Cup follows a familiar American theme and the underdog lower league sides will win over fans here in a way the PL never can.

    The FA Cup: ESPN’s ticket in the US.

    The PL: A sure way to sour the execs on soccer.

    Think about it before bashing me. If you understand the American sports physqe and culture you’ll understand this, and the cup will come cheaper and is quite frankly more understandable to American sports fans.

  19. Mike

    July 1, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Spot-on with your comments on ESPN. Adrian Healy and Derek Rae were tremendous on play-by-play, and Andy Gray sold the whole package. There was no condescending explaining of the rules, no nonsensical analysis or glamor shots of stars in the audience. Unfortunately, ESPN has to shore up its studio lineup. Rob Stone is awful, ditto for Tommy Onion Bags and Julie Foudy, well, no amount of makeup is going to cover up that growth on your eyebrow–especially in HD!

  20. lee hendricks

    July 1, 2008 at 8:36 am

    I have to agree that ESPN did a great job, because for the first time, they went beyond ‘shoehorning the games into our busy programming schedule’ — and actually providing a bit of what is SOOO important about the beatiful game; that is to say, the context of each match.

    The thing about the ratings of the games is this: most Americans don’t spend nearly as much time watching live sports events as they do watching SportsCenter, watching talking heads blather about athletes in legal trouble, etc.

    ESPN finally realized that the games mean very little to anyone without the context, the continuity, provided to the casual viewer. So they provided it. Not just in the halftime / pregame shows, but by talking about it all month long on SportsCenter, on PTI, etc.

    All the sudden attention on soccer worked on a couple levels: for the die-hards like us, its a bit of a ‘proud papa’ moment: we’re just so happy to hear Tom Ley pronounce Schweinsteiger properly on “Outside the Lines” that we’re satisfied. For the casual fans, it provides the ‘why are these matches important again?’ context that is so crucial to actually enjoying the matches once you’re watching.

    I think it’s a great move by ESPN — they get to nurture a sport into the wider American consciousness, (sorry, poker, not a sport) and will reap the benefits down the road. Lord knows they have a lot of foot soldiers out here in the trenches. I spent at least 45 minutes every day explaining stuff like ‘Who’s Fatih Terim?’ and ‘Why doesn’t Spain sing?’ and ‘Why are France so awful?’ to people who I never expected to care. A wonderful tournament for me!

    Now if my friends develop a sudden interest in le Tour, I’ll be happy for another month.

  21. eplnfl

    June 30, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Just well said Gaffer, ESPN stepped up to the plate for soccer and hit a home run. Ok, sorry to use baseball terms here, but the most important thing is that as the Gaffer pointed out Euro 08 become part of the daily sports scene for the average American. All those public place TV sets tuned in to ESPN, it was hard to miss. Mainstream American sportscast, ie: local news, givng the scores.

    To those of us, not me btw, who doubted ESPN, you saw what happens when they get behind their product. Not that the EPL needs more popularity but if ESPN shows the Prem in the near future we all see how ESPN will have the coverage promoted. Then lets hope some of that will transfer over to the MLS.

    A final thought, lets cease-fire on Andy Gray!

  22. tampasoccerfan

    June 30, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Agreed, Gaffer. If ESPN wants to, it can make soccer mainstream, and if there is a will, there is a way. Same thing applies for promotion and increased influx of $ in the MLS, and getting rid of the salary cap and the single entity structure within the next decade or so, but that is a whole different topic.
    Slowly but surely, soccer is getting there, waaaay better than a decade ago.

  23. Kartik

    June 30, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Obscure Bundesliga players?

    Germany reached the final and yet their players who aren’t blessed to play in england or Spain are obscure to Andy Gray. all of them. BTW, did the Premier League or the Bundesliga have more players in the semifinal or finals of the Euros?

    If Balboa called the game and didn’t know someone from wigan, you people would probably say, “how could he not know Johnny X, who scored five times this season for Wigan in the PL.”

    I’m still waiting with baited breathe to see if the Euro final garnered more viewers in the US than last years CONCACAF Gold Cup final.

    Does anyone believe it did?

  24. Ryan

    June 30, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    I heard the game rated a 3.1 overnight on a radio show this morning, but I have not seen that confirmed online, can anyone confirm that?

  25. CFTV

    June 30, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    I had to hand it to Foudy on the wrap up show at 7pm on Sunday for breaking down Torres goal for Spain. She did an awesome job with the telestrator. Watching the flow of the game I didn’t realize how many passes Spain made before prising open the German Defense to get Torres in on the attack. Sure it was awkward with her starting to count the passes and stopping halfway through but that said the rest of the call was really well done.

    And I agree with you that ESPN being heavily handed in the promoting soccer would be awesome but I think at some point Johnny American Sports Fan would start to get their knickers in a bundle if ESPN constantly was pimping soccer across all their platforms especially if it was looked at as a detriment to american sports. There are some people that started to dig poker that became sick of it where they won’t watch anymore after ESPN shoved Poker down people’s throats for the past couple of years.

    Using ESPN Classic or turning it into ESPN 3 where Soccer is a prominently featured sport all year long is something I definitley see ESPN doing in the future. I would be perfectly content with an ESPN 3/International that did soccer on the weekend afternoons as well as during the week with the NHL and MMA being two of the other featured properties as the other anchors to the network. Three sports that are truely international in flavor none of which that are covered as heavily as they should by ESPN given the restraints of ESPN and ESPN2.

  26. betsy's bolton bum baster

    June 30, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    I’ve been saying this for years. ESPN has always had the power but they choose to broadcast a-holes like Jim Rome and Kornheiser. ESPN is such a powerful name in sports, there is really nowhere else the consumer can turn for a sports fix. ESPN can single-handedly force soccer down American’s throats and we will do nothing but ask for seconds.

  27. Brian

    June 30, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    I think that as bad as Tommy Smyth is in the box, it’s good to keep him hanging around as the casual American has come to know his face, name, and most of all – accent. Andy Gray is class and the casual fan knows him from the videogame FIFA as well. ESPN certainly did a great job, but as always there is room for improvement.

  28. tyduffy

    June 30, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    I thought the coverage was carried off rather well. I was covering it for an American sports site and all the reaction I saw about the coverage was how great the announcing was (although I’m sure Kartik will come up with an example of some obscure Bundesliga player Andy Gray didn’t do justice to in the group stage). And that is rare for an ESPN enterprise.

    I thought on the whole. They struck a great balance between providing extensive well-produced coverage and not thrusting it in people’s face who didn’t want it. As a result, people were intrigued and it showed in the ratings success.

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