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The Collapse of ESPN’s Soccer Empire


The loss of Champions League rights for the United States is just the latest blow to ESPN’s once dominant position broadcasting Football in the United States. As we reported almost two weeks ago, FOX has wrestled the rights to the marque annual event in world club football away from ESPN.

In the late 1990s, ESPN and its family of networks showed MLS often twice a week (once weekly on ESPN2 and once weekly on either ESPN or ABC) while running a show, Extra Time that wrapped up the week’s MLS action. ESPN had Champions League rights, La Liga rights, and until the 98-99 season they showed the English Premier League.

When ESPN lost the Premier League rights to FOX, News Corp, the parent company of FOX aired a two hour wrap up show on Sunday nights on regional FSN affiliates. This show remains etched as a starting point for so many American based Premier League fans: why did ESPN not make an effort to produce a similar show on the properties it had the rights to, even if at odd times?

Much of the Premier League’s success in America which includes overtaking our own domestic league in popularity is due to FOX’s commitment to the product. This is a commitment ESPN has never demonstrated to MLS itself.

La Liga once on ESPN is now on GOL TV and COMNEBOL World Cup qualifying is now on Setanta. ESPN however does now scroll key international soccer scores on the bottom line ticker and seems to recognize the growth in the game’s popularity stateside. But much of that growth, originally fueled by ESPN itself is now owed to other networks.

ESPN’s coverage of the US National Team while consistent, has shifted heavily from ABC to ESPN 2 since the network acquired NBA rights in 2002. While the number of games aired have remained consistent, the quality of telecast has dropped to near amateurish levels as we will discuss below.

ESPN in the late 1990s and early part of this decade used talented commentators like Seamus Malin and Ty Keough who while airing some biases were well grounded in the world game. (Keough was often criticized for being jingoistic but upon reflection he knew CONCACAF well and his match analysis was far superior to what we have now). Now the network relies on a number of former US players, all with extreme biases and lack of world football understanding. Eric Wynalda who has been released by ESPN had little understanding of European Football and ridiculous bias towards any player or coach in MLS.

Wynalda among other things advocated Frank Yallop becoming the manager of the US National Team, and stated the US team was too heavily dependent on European based players and that more selections should come from MLS. When Wynalda was let go he was replaced by John Harkes whose commentating style is so bland and who misses so much of what goes on in the match it’s laughable. Alexi Lalas is now in the studio in place of Julie Foudy, whom I always found objective and somewhat refreshing.

Lalas stated over the Summer of 2007 that he believed the Houston Dynamo, then the reigning MLS Champions would be a mid table team in the Premier League. This statement is so ridiculous it does not merit further discussion. Additionally, Lalas makes colorful but often crazy statements in the studio. But truthfully, Lalas would be a better commentator than Harkes in the booth.

But both Harkes and Lalas are incredibly jingoistic, overaly supportive of the USSF and MLS and not well informed about players for CONCACAF nations outside the US. With the Univision family of networks also airing many US matches in HD, it’s very difficult to not be tempted to flip the channel to the Spanish language broadcast just to avoid the blabbering and hype on ESPN.

The amateurishness of MLS telecasts on ESPN’s family of networks coupled with a product that was less compelling than just about any other major world football league doomed MLS on Thursday nights. The ratings for re-runs of Poker and Bowling approached MLS ratings on the network despite being given a prime time slot. The ratings for the US National Team on the network continued to blow away MLS despite often times being on the less desirable Wednesday night, and ostensibly appealing to the same groups of fans.

ESPN thus made the decision this past off season to shift the majority of its MLS telecasts away from Thursday nights. They also shifted the MLS Cup, whose 0.6 rating on ABC last year was its lowest ever away from the over the air channel and onto cable. Truthfully ABC got unlucky with the MLS Cup: had the LA Galaxy, DC United or Houston Dynamo made the final the ratings would have remained respectable. But a Columbus Crew-NY Red Bulls match up appealed to few but the hard core MLS supporters.

ESPN and ABC does have the rights to FIFA events including the World Cup thanks to a deal with SUM (the marketing arm of MLS) through 2014. So ESPN’s loss of Champions League rights does not mean that the network is out of the world class soccer business just yet. But clearly, FOX is expanding its scope while ESPN’s is contracting.

The silver lining for ESPN is that their broadband product ESPN 360 continues to secure more and more soccer related properties. Perhaps ESPN’s formula for football coverage going forward is more Internet based than television based. FOX on the other hand seems committed to buying up as many properties as it can. A shift is occurring of seismic proportions regarding TV rights for football in the US.Will ESPN fight back? That remains to be seen.


Ironically enough, I appeared on an ESPN show yesterday: Listen to my appearance on the 3/30 edition of  LA’s ESPN 710’s Soccer Show with Dave Denholm here. The topic of discussion was the US-El Salvador match from Saturday night.

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  1. Bob

    April 1, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I remember last season when I was looking forward to watching an MLS match on ESPN 2, only to see a WNBA contest, which aired on the same network prior to the soccer game, last three overtimes. I wound up missing the entire first half of the game, which I believe, featured the Houston Dynamo.

  2. Warren

    April 1, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Ty Keough was a “talented commentator”? Ty was absolutely horrible.

  3. Dave

    April 1, 2009 at 11:50 am

    If FSC airs regular telecasts, let’s say one CL game each matchday on Fx, the blow is softened. Fx is on as many cable systems as ESPN 2 and actually had a lot of critically acclaimed shows meaning they probably have more prime time viewers than ESPN on some days. If they advertise the Champions League on Fx, the blow can be softened.

  4. Derek

    April 1, 2009 at 3:25 am

    ESPN deserves to lose out because they put very little in. Maybe they will up MLS more than they have or use the CL commentators for MLS, that would help out a lot. Hey Kartik bring Dave Denholm on MLSTalk, I miss you two on T.A.S.S. I know some didn’t like him but I did. It is nice to know that at least one person at ESPN really appreciates MLS!

  5. Chris

    March 31, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    How about TNT’s coverage of Italia ’90? They need to get…back…..into…broadcasting……soccer………..
    never mind.

  6. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    March 31, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    ESPN also shows the College Cup as part of its contract with the NCAA. The Gaffer also reminded me about the World Football Challenge which will be on ESPN this summer.

  7. The Gaffer

    March 31, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Bret, the Holland v Scotland game was televised live on ESPN360 on Saturday.

    The Gaffer

  8. eplnfl

    March 31, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I know it maybe fashionable to knock ESPN but remember that ESPN has brought both the World Cup and Euro 2008 to mainstream America. They retain the US rights to both of the major soccer tournaments in the world. That shows commitment enough! They provide the major outlet for MLS and have coverage of both the mens and womens national teams. Those of us who did not watch NCAA BB on Saturday night where watching the US men on what channel? ESPN. The entire sporting nation saw the excellent opening night of the Seattle Sounders on which channel? Right you know the answer. Wednesday evening we will watch the USA v. T&T and during the day watch Wales v. Germany on what channel? ESPN 360.

    So those who complain of a lack of commitment look somewhere else in my book. Now, with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR, NCAA FB & BB, not to mention MLS and all of the above, you can imagine what ESPN pays out in rights fees.
    With the rights to the CL and EPL up at the same time could both be acquired by ESPN. Probably not. What is the more valuable property to the network. No doubt the EPL. So, if they get denied coverage of the EPL, it would be a disappointment of major proportions. Yet, if they land the EPL, all of us who love soccer will be thankful. Except, well it help our MLS which we want to see flourish. That is the subject of another post.

  9. Bret

    March 31, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    C’monUSgetonboardwithsoccer, I couldn’t agree more. There’s been a lot of times that I’ve been looking for a game on FSC and been greeted with either Arsenal or Juventus’ game from four days ago or Malta v. New Zealand from last week.

    What was unbelievably appaling was that on Saturday, Holland (one of the top flight international teams) v. Scotland wasn’t on television AT ALL. At least not in Southern California. I couldn’t believe it.

  10. Joey Clams

    March 31, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Well, if taking what you get means putting up with Christopher Sullivan, then maybe I’ll just not watch.

    Is there a law that says that I have to watch?

    Think about. If the viewing experience is such that I end up annoyed, why would I want to watch?

    I’ll just go play tennis or read a few chapters of a book or catch an Andy Griffith mini-marathon.

  11. C'monUSgetonboardwithsoccer

    March 31, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Doesn’t hurt my feelings if MLS goes as far away from ESPN as possible. I’m tired of programming that comes on prior to matches cutting into air time like tennis college basketball, college world series baseball, and in the fall college pigskin football…or as Steven Cohen would say…”throw ball”…

    Fox Soccer Channel should be showing many more MLS games instead of already played EPL and Serie A reruns over, and over, and over.

    As far as announcers, if you have MLS Direct Kick most of the announcers are below par. There are a few who actually have a clue, but most are football/basketball/baseball guys moon lighting for an extra buck…Gotta take what you get…Alexi adds comedy, Harkes adds a better knowledge than most,a nd when Wynalda was around…controversy big time. I’d like to see the three on as in-studio guys…that’d be interesting…

  12. Joey Clams

    March 31, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Seamus Malin, at many levels, represented a rather emasculated view of the game. He once castigated Earnie Stewart for shoving a Canadian player- WC 1997 in Burnaby – after the Canadian player kicked a dead ball into Claudio Reyna’s groin. Stewart did the right thing; he didn’t punch, kick of headbutt but he stood up for his teammate. Malin, committed to a rather Blackrock College – Dublin / Harvard intramural approach to the game, banged on about how unbecoming and unnecessary it was. He, and Bob Ley, also had the annoying habit or reminding us who the opponent was whenever anything went right. Seamus, we know that the three goals scored against Germany in early 1999 were against Germany because we were playing Germany. And it take us until Joe-Max Moore’s strike later on that year for us to figure out that we were playing Argentina. The more I reflect on all this, the more I’m convinced that following the game in this country is thankless and torturous.

  13. tk

    March 31, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    The only place you lost me was “respectable” and Seamus Malin”.

    As a fan for over 40 years Seamus was nothing short of an annoying joke.

  14. vic

    March 31, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Any chance ESPN may try for other club tournaments such as libertadores or copa sudamericana? If they did, that would be giving those tournaments more exposure in the US and perhaps give MLS an international context when they play in the latter (such as with DC United in 05, and perhaps in the former one day soon…maybe we could bribe Traffic with a MLS team in S. Florida). Whether MLS is ready for it or not is another question. BTW, I dont think MLS takes Concacaf champions league seriously.

  15. Peter C

    March 31, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    ESPN reaches around 98 million households. FSC reaches about 34 million, but Fox Sports Net reaches 89 million. The basic Fox channel reaches around 98% of US households.
    I don’t know about other cable systems, but the FSC and FSN are part of an extra tier on my Cox system, whereas ESPN is part of a ‘basic’ cable package on most systems.
    I bring this up only to point out that the potential for widespread US soccer coverage exists for Fox.

  16. EPLNFL

    March 31, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    To those who have a AT& T cell phone service you can get ESPN 360 anywhere you have a internet connection.

    Chris may hit on the biggest point of all, INTERNET RIGHTS, may be the biggest factor in the rights fees.

  17. Joey Clams

    March 31, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    One must hope, however, for a greater commitment to professionalism from Fox.

    Sullivan’s affectations MUST be reigned in by a producer. That same producer MUST discourage Christian Miles from narrating himself into a corner with his verbosity; his Bretos and Martin Tyler complexes are painfully apparent. And that producer MUST physically punish both Bretos and Sullivan for affecting Argentine pronunciations.

    I know that Gol TV has nothing to do with this but I do feel like taking a baseball bat to the TV each time that Phil Schoen tries to come off Argie during games between La Equidad and Boyacá Chicó.

  18. Project USA

    March 31, 2009 at 1:26 pm


    “…the Houston Dynamo, then the reigning MLS Champions would be a mid table team in the Premier League”

    The Dynamo have been one of the better MLS sides, but I believe they would be killed in a game with the likes of Hull, Stoke City, or Newcastle… score lines like 6-0.

    I’m not intending to trash US soccer, but it is as Kartik says: the MLS squads’ quality is limited by the MLS salary cap. An MLS team might have a few pretty good players, but they can’t afford 11 of them. I suspect if the teams were taking in more revenue the salary cap would be raised and the quality of sides would be better, so we the fans have something to account for here.

    And lets face it — to our shared dismay, perhaps — arguably the best US player, Landon, was not good enough to really interest Bayern Munich. If Landon isn’t good enough, would Ching or Mullan be?

    Whereas you bring in Darren Huckerby, who wasn’t playing in the Premier League, and the MLS gets more exciting.

    We have to be honest with ourselves in the US if we want to rise to the top (and why shouldn’t we set our sights that high?) — we have a long long way to go. BS’ing the fans about how good we are works against us. I really see too much of the commentators, Lalas in particular, catering to the fan who wants to hear good things about the US and whose sensibilities about soccer are based in watching the NFL. I think that was the formula, maybe not Lalas fault, but NFL fans are never going to be that interested in soccer, we need soccer fans.

    And by the way, soccer is the sport more people in the US play growing up, the potential for the US to be a soccer nation is very real.

    EPSN hasn’t shown the commitment to soccer. Fox has. For goodness sakes there is Fox Soccer Channel (FSC). Next we need Fox LaLiga Channel and Fox EPL Channel and Fox MLS Channel etc.

    Show me the footy!

  19. The Gaffer

    March 31, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Rumor has it that the final will be shown on FX.

    The Gaffer

  20. PZ

    March 31, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    The Championship matches Setanta doesn’t show have been on ESPN360 as well. Hopefully, that will last. The biggest problem with the site is how few ISP’s subscribe to it. Unless you have ATT are a college student connecting on campus or in the military connecting on base, good luck.

    I do have problem with the jingoistic term. Not that you use it but that you see it as such a negative. After listening to hears of British commentators (can’t speak for commentators elsewhere as my language skills are limited) Lalas, Waldo, Harkes et al are no worse than any of them. Heck it could be considered a good thing as we are still developing a fan base for the National Team.

    What will be interesting is to see what Fox does with this new property. Sure, FSC will be showing matches and I’m sure Setanta will buy some matches from them. But both those channels don’t have the reach ESPN has. Will some matches be shown on the regional channels? It’s not like there’s much else live action on Tuesday/Wednesday afternoons. Could the Final be over-the-air on Fox?

  21. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    March 31, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Thanks HDSports. Did not know the J-League in particular is not there anymore. That’s definitely a big blow.

  22. HDSports

    March 31, 2009 at 11:12 am

    “The silver lining for ESPN is that their broadband product ESPN 360 continues to secure more and more soccer related properties.”

    Last year at this time, ESPN360 was showing Chinese, Japanese, and Russian soccer. I don’t see any of those leagues being shown at all this season. They also cut back on showing properties that they do have….for example, when they started showing Australian football, they showed all four matches per matchday, but later in the season cut it back to one match. ESPN360 used to be the place to go to see those “other” leagues, but now follows the basic formula for the US fan…just showing European and US football. Not that I am glad for what they show, especially the on Portugal match per week and the two from the Eredivisie, but to say their coverage is expanding is inaccurate.

  23. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    March 31, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Cavan, I think any MLS team would struggle in any European first division of note. MLS teams travel badly in hostile atmospheres as evidenced by the continued CONCACAF failures. Additionally, squad limits and salary limits mean the bottom end players in MLS are worse than USL-1 and sometimes USL-2 players. It’s no coincidence Khumalo, Janicki and Mbuta all came from USL-2 into MLS late last year and had an impact. The better USL-2 players are more ready to play than the low end developmental MLS roster players.

    An MLS all star team would compete in England in no doubt for a UEFA Cup place. But in a more balanced league like Germany or Spain, even an MLS all star team would struggle for a mid table finish.

    I guess the point is that Lalas and his brother Greg do nothing but over hype MLS’ quality (Greg Lalas once said MLS was a top 10 worldwide league and recently said the league was better than the Mexican League) without really knowing world football. Greg Lalas I give credit for following African and Asian football better than most pundits, but both brothers are still over the top in their decelerations of how good MLS is.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with it if I didn’t know so many casual sports fans who hear this hype on ESPN and then tune on MLS and find it boring and then say they cannot watch soccer, etc, etc. If they watched the Bundesliga or La Liga to start or even the Mexican League chances are quite good they couldn’t come back at me with how boring it is.

  24. Cavan

    March 31, 2009 at 10:55 am

    “Lalas stated over the Summer of 2007 that he believed the Houston Dynamo, then the reigning MLS Champions would be a mid table team in the Premier League”

    I wouldn’t call it ridiculous. At that time, the Dynamo would have had a legitimate shot at avoiding relegation. The shallow roster would have gotten to them, though. The quality in the EPL really drops off after the Big 4. If their top 14 or so could have stayed healthy, it’s not that ridiculous of a statement at all.

  25. The Gaffer

    March 31, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Problem for ESPN is that the internet rights to the Premier League will be combined with the TV rights, so if they don’t get the TV rights, they’ll have to try to negotiate with Fox for those internet rights. Fox may not want to give it up, but it all depends on how much money ESPN would be willing to offer.

    The Gaffer

  26. Mr. Fish

    March 31, 2009 at 10:54 am

    ESPN’s $500MM acquisition of BCS college football rights from 2011 to 2014 meant the Worldwide Leader had to give somewhere. Who’d they outbid for the rights? Fox. Can’t blame ESPN for focusing closer to viewing habits of their core audience, though US soccer fans will suffer.

  27. Joey Clams

    March 31, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Otherwise, Kartik, you’re right on. The hype before WC 2006 was sickening.

  28. Joey Clams

    March 31, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Jingoistic is a strong word. Casual use of it worries me.

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