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ESPN reaps benefits of FOX and NBC’s indifference to ICC rights

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.

SEE MORE: Schedule of International Champions Cup games on US TV and streaming

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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  1. Fsquid

    March 23, 2017 at 11:45 am

    I’m amazed that they are calling a friendly “el clasico”. I’m guessing ESPN will pretend this is the same as a cup final.

  2. Johnny Depf

    March 22, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Did you guys see the ticket prices for this friendly? Cheapest tickets, which are all gone already, was $350…the most expensive $4,000….with that price I can fly to Spain and watch both teams play, stay an extra week for vacation and probably still have some money left..

    • francis

      March 23, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      There’s a sucker born every minute

  3. Brendan Soraghan

    March 22, 2017 at 9:06 am

    I watch ESPNFC ever day that it is on . I find the analysis from the pundits every good . They should have more access to European leagues . When they do the LA Liga . Serie ,& French Ligue they have no highlights to show . Why is this , Bein Sport who have the rights don’t share them . I see their highlights on Fox , NBC etc . Also I see ESPN soccer highlights on Bein Sport by their analysts which are no near the quality that ESPN have

  4. Harry Cee

    March 22, 2017 at 7:43 am

    Barca vs Real Madrid on American soil? How often does that happen? One of the biggest derbies in football? Yes, I think it will draw a huge crowd not only to the venue but to TV ratings as well.

  5. The Money Team

    March 21, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    U.S. economy is overheated due to the Federal Reserve Bank keeping interest rate too low for too many years. The Fed is finally raising interest rates more aggressively.

    That means 2017 = 1999.

    That means too many rubbish business plans with the words “app” and “disrupt” are being funded by venture capital firms.

    That means “global” sports entertainment outfits such as Man Utd, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are coming to the U.S. to “dine at the trough” one last time to take home bags of Mr. Benjamin’s portrait while they still can…

    • The Auditor

      March 23, 2017 at 8:08 pm

      Cmon. Fed Funds are at 1% currently. In 1999 it was 4.75% at the start of the year and went up to 5.5% by the end of the year. ( That’s 375bps to 450bps greater than today, so no, 2017 does not ‘=1999’, and it’s not even close. Money is still insanely cheap and will be that way for some time, and to say the economy is ‘overheated’ is pure nonsense.

      The big clubs will keep coming back. This is no last stand. While I’m the first one to say ‘follow the $’, the spigot is flowing and will continue to do so for quite some time.

  6. The Auditor

    March 21, 2017 at 8:20 pm

    You are putting FAR to much into some summer friendlies. Big clubs and star power ( if they even play) yes, but these matches are nothing more than filler in the slowest part of the calendar for ESPN. They don’t drive ratings, they don’t drive traffic to other properties- they are low cost filler and nothing more.

    There is no sports property that rates well on summer Saturday nights. That said, preseason NFL games will blow this number out of the water when they start 2 weeks later.

    • Christopher Harris

      March 21, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      The TV viewing numbers for the game between Barcelona and Real Madrid on a Saturday night on ESPN will change your thinking.

      • Wrong Said Fred

        March 21, 2017 at 8:39 pm

        So they will be higher than preseason NFL ratings?

        • Christopher Harris

          March 21, 2017 at 8:40 pm

          Of course not. NFL is king. But compare that to other soccer games or baseball, etc.

          • Wrong Said Fred

            March 21, 2017 at 11:35 pm

            The vast majority of baseball on TV is local, so (as you already know) that is not a good comparison. The only soccer on summer Saturday nights is, of course, MLS (which nobody wants to watch) so that is not a good comparison either.

            So when you say the TV ratings for a summer friendly between two Spanish teams on a Saturday night “will change your thinking” what am I looking for in particular?

      • Mccort3D1

        March 22, 2017 at 10:25 am

        I’m sure the match will have high ratings for a Saturday night and probably higher than anything else going on in late July, besides the Manchester derby other ICC matches will probably not have any huge ratings. Also I don’t get the fascination you have on this site to linking everything to MLS. This match won’t turn on people to future MLS matches, the world cup does not, the Euro’s do not so why would this? It may have a ratings bump if an MLS match airs before or after this but it will have 0 impact on the viewing figures for the league as a whole.

      • The Auditor

        March 22, 2017 at 11:16 am

        On Sat July 23, 2016, ESPN aired a 12:30pm International Champions Cup kickoff and got 399k viewers, ranking 15th in cable sports that day. Of note there was a 3:45pm MLS match on ESPN that got 345k viewers.

        On Sat July 30, 2016, ESPN aired 4 International Champions Cup matches with kickoffs at 1pm, 3pm, 10pm, and midnight. Highest total viewers: 508k, ranking 10th that day in cable sports ratings.

        On Sat Aug 6, ESPN had noon International Champions Cup kickoff and got 388k viewers, and a 9:15pm kickoff on ESPN2 got 89k viewers. Should be noted that this went up against Olympic coverage on both broadcast and cable.

        As you can see on those links, most of the FS1 national MLB broadcasts beat these friendlies, a few didn’t. It is difficult to really extrapolate the MLB numbers as we don’t know which of those games are FS1 exclusives and which blacked out in the home markets – and a game featuring a New York team or Boston could swing 150-250k viewers if it’s exclusive.

        NASCAR consistently beat out soccer – pre-race, the races themselves, and post-race coverage – by millions of viewers. Golf did as well.

        There’s nothing here that really surprises me. Where will the Miami El Clasico match rank? My guess based off all this is in the 400-600k viewer range – which ranks it among the higher rated MLS matches for the season. Again, this isn’t the sort of thing that drives viewers to other properties, with numbers this small, if anything, it siphons viewers from the other soccer properties.

        • Wrong Said Fred

          March 22, 2017 at 10:13 pm

          That is why I am sincerely asking Chris what he means when he says the number for the Madrid/Barca will “Change your thinking”.

          • Christopher Harris

            March 22, 2017 at 10:46 pm

            Let’s see what the TV viewing number is for the game and we can revisit the topic at the end of July. Personally, compared to other soccer games this summer and nationally-televised baseball games, I believe the viewing number for el Clasico will surprise a lot of people. I could be wrong, but until we see what that number is, there’s not much else to say.

            • Wrong Said Fred

              March 23, 2017 at 4:03 pm

              So you won’t even give a number that would back up your contention that viewership of this match would change someone’s thinking?

              Something is VERY wrong if this game can’t blow away MLS and other summer friendlies here (aside from Manchester derby). Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN averages in the 1.5 million range. I am going to go on record here and say this bogus El Clasico won’t get anywhere near that.

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