The most intense summer of soccer battle is about to commence. Will the majority of soccer fans in the United States choose to watch Copa America Centenario, the Euro 2016 tournament or both? Since the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) is hosting the Copa America Centenario, conventional wisdom and the narrative pushed by some MLS/USMNT-centric writers is that the Euros will suffer this summer on American television. At the same time, I anticipate Mexico will compete to win the Copa America, which means that Univision Deportes will be the biggest winners as the majority of viewers will watch the Latino teams throughout the entire tournament.
On the English-language side, I believe Euro 2016 may ultimately win the ratings battle against Copa America Centenario. Here’s why:
FOX Sports vs ESPN
It might seem the most basic piece of analysis but fans prefer the way ESPN presents high-level international soccer to the way similar-level matches are broadcast on FOX Sports. Particularly for the Copa America, where FOX’s coverage is almost certain to be USMNT-centric, many soccer fans will gravitate to the different style of presentation ESPN offers.
While some ethnic bias might explain the preferences of European-oriented US-based soccer fans, the entire commentary team put forth by FOX Sports to call matches is American. That contrasts with the ESPN team that includes a potpourri of nationalities and a woman, Kate Markgraf. The Euros will appear quite likely be presented in a manner that appeals to soccer fans more than FOX’s Copa coverage. However, FOX as always is banking on converting casual American sports fans to watch Copa America Centenario since it is a domestic-based competition. Short of a deep USMNT run in the competition, this is a flawed strategy.
FOX Sports gets a great deal of abuse from hardcore soccer fans for their coverage of the sport, some of which is undeserved. But the bottom line remains that those most likely to watch soccer matches prefer someone else broadcasting the biggest events in the game.
On paper, the US Men’s National Team has arguably its strongest squad entering a major tournament since 2006 or perhaps even 2002. But the reality of recent performances demonstrates the USMNT has been an underperforming unit since the fall of 2013. In that period, the United States has outshot an opponent in a competitive match just twice – one of those two games was the stunning CONCACAF Gold Cup semi-final loss to Jamaica last July when the USMNT fell behind 2-0 very early.
Under Jürgen Klinsmann, the USMNT are underachieving on the field while generating less interest in terms of attendance and ticket sales than anticipated. Sources have indicated to me that Klinsmann’s job is safe irrespective of results in this competition, but the sagging ticket sales for the USMNT might eventually play a major role in his demise down the road. FOX Sports will no doubt try and conjure up some sort of patriotic fervor around the USMNT but if the US is eliminated at the end of the Group Stage on June 11 while the Euros kick off in earnest that weekend, a natural shift in eyeballs is almost certain to occur.
Is this even a real Copa America?
American soccer fans have become more seasoned and sophisticated in recent years. Meaningless friendlies, including those that involve top European clubs, have seen a decline in attendance and general interest. USMNT friendlies have seen a dip in attendance and more perspective from writers and fans as to their overall meaning. Now this Copa America Centenario, which features a number of sides at less than full strength and coming just a year after the Copa was held in Chile, is being viewed by some as a glorified exhibition tournament. Brazil has reinforced this thinking by sending what is essentially a B team to the event while major European clubs openly fret about the players that are spending a third, or in some cases a fourth, successive summer competing in an international tournament.
Why exactly is South America’s continental championship celebrating its 100th anniversary on US soil? This is a question I am asked by skeptics constantly, several of which have told me they plan to focus on Euro 2016 this summer. Ticket sales for the Copa in some cities have been sluggish, and while officials from CONMEBOL and CONCACAF might still enjoy a windfall in cash from this event, it isn’t going to quite be what they had anticipated.
Euro 2016 quality is higher
While some fans argue to the contrary, the European Championships feature the majority of top national teams on the globe. Nine of the last 12 World Cup semi-finalists have come from Europe and the last three World Cup champions have come from the continent. This period of European dominance on the international stage has coincided with the remarkable growth in the sport’s popularity here in the United States among English-language dominant speakers. The reality is for most fans of the game, they don’t recall Brazil or Argentina winning a major event that involved sides from outside the Americas or a period of time when Spain was seen as a historical underachiever. In this era, of which most fans of soccer in the United States came of age, the world powers are largely European. And when one of the few exceptions to that general rule (Brazil) sends a virtual B team to the Copa, the signal sent is unmistakable. The Euros are of a higher quality and matter more than the Copa America Centenario.
Timing is everything
In the Group Stage of Euro 2016, there’s an average of 3 games on per day ensuring that soccer fans can enjoy an 8-hour+ block of soccer coverage. With many students being out of school and some of the workforce planning on taking time off to spend time at home, soccer fans may quickly get accustomed to spending 8+ hours per day watching Euro 2016. As we’ve seen with the record-breaking TV ratings for European soccer games shown live on US television on weekend mornings, some soccer fans suffer from burnout by the time the evening rolls around, which is when the average of two Copa America games are on per night.
FOX Sports 1 still finding its feet
As we’ve seen from the TV ratings of soccer games on FOX Sports 1, the network is still finding its feet and is dwarfed by the TV ratings that ESPN gets. Plus ESPN is in 6 million more homes than FS1.
On top of that, most of the Euro 2016 games are on ESPN (while some are on ESPN2, which is easy to find). Over on FOX Sports, Copa America Centenario games will be shown across FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, FOX and FX. You’ll certainly need to have a Copa America TV schedule handy to figure out where the games will be shown. That gives an advantage to ESPN, where it’s much less work to find games on television.
USA and Mexico games aren’t on FOX
If FOX Sports wanted to guarantee monster TV ratings for Copa America Centenario, they would have scheduled the games featuring the United States and Mexico to be shown live on the over-the-air FOX network. Instead, every single USA and Mexico game is on FOX Sports 1. The most high profile game Mexico can hope for on US television is a quarter-final on FX if El Tri advances from its group. All USA games, no matter how far they advance, will be on FS1.
Chances are quite high that once these two tournaments are in full swing, Euro 2016 will win the English-language ratings battle with the English-language audience. Either way, the real winner will be the soccer fans in the United States who will be able to watch 80+ games live on television and streaming.
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