Editor’s note: Kartik Krishnaiyer and Christopher Harris provide insight while rating the best soccer TV channels in the US.
Soccer fans in the United States often complain that the sport isn’t properly advertised or promoted by the networks who hold the rights to show the most popular leagues. While soccer still sits behind many other sports in terms of promotion, some networks do a better job than others in making viewers aware of what soccer properties they air.
The success of a league measured by TV viewing numbers can be attributed to several factors outside of how entertaining a league is. After all, if no one knows when the games are being televised, it can have a dramatic impact on the viewing numbers no matter how good the league is. Vice versa, some leagues may end up getting promoted more heavily than others, but if the quality of the soccer on display isn’t worth watching, the league’s TV viewing numbers may be insufficient even if the league is promoted ad nauseam.
Before we dive into analyzing how well each soccer-related broadcaster is doing promoting the major soccer properties they have the rights to, what do we consider to be promotion anyway? We’re looking at in-house ads on the respective TV networks. We look at the advertiser that each network does to promote the leagues on other media such as website banner ads, TV commercials on other networks and sponsored ads on social media. Plus, promos during other shows on networks are important in addition to getting the word out to journalists via media publicity (i.e. public relations).
All of these are factored into the analysis of each network, and the grade we’ve given them.
Here’s our review of how well the networks are promoting their soccer properties, which includes analysis and grades from both myself and World Soccer Talk publisher Christopher Harris:
Rating the best soccer TV channels
Kartik: There is little question that beIN SPORTS promotes and covers soccer as well if not better than any other network in the United States. This is a network that very forcefully promotes all of its soccer properties and clearly advertises on the network when they are showing big matches several days, if not weeks in advance.
But with beIN’s diminishing footprint, the network has become more dependent than ever on legal streaming platforms Sling TV and fuboTV among others to promote its programming. What has resulted is less visibility for beIN’s excellent bumper programming like The Xtra and The Express, both of which have typically enjoyed lots of promotion on the network.
Nonetheless, beIN is doing everything they can to promote the sport at a higher level than just about any other network.
Christopher: If you only watch beIN SPORTS, you’ll have a good idea of what games and leagues they cover. But much like FOX Sports, beIN SPORTS suffers from not promoting their coverage outside of their comfort zone — i.e. their own channels.
It’s rare that you’ll see an advertisement on TV or online for a beIN SPORTS game or league unless it’s on beIN SPORTS’ own website or TV channel. It’s also rare that you’ll see their @beINSPORTSUSA Twitter account interacting with the public on a personal one-to-one basis by answering questions or engaging in a conversation. As a result, there always seems to be a large disconnect between beIN SPORTS and the viewer, which makes it harder for soccer fans who are not watching beIN SPORTS every day to know what coverage is coming up on the network.
On a positive, beIN SPORTS has been a trailblazer in signing deals with streaming platforms to make their networks and Connect channels as accessible as possible, so that helps in the promotion of their leagues they broadcast.
- Grade: A (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: D (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: C+
Kartik: NBC’s outstanding promotion of its Premier League package, now in its sixth season, stands alone at the top of the English language US-based networks commitment to promoting soccer. NBC Sports Group has used the Olympics, prominent golf events such as the Ryder Cup, the Open Championship, auto racing, the NHL and even Notre Dame Football to promote the Premier League. NBC has also significantly included the Premier League among its general sports ads which show the league and sport alongside the NFL, NHL, the Olympics, Golf and the French Open, the only Grand Slam tennis event still airing on the network.
NBC’s aggressive cross-promotion of events on Spanish-language carrier Telemundo on English language broadcasts appeared to have netted some benefit during this past summer’s World Cup. The cross-promotion has continued into this Premier League season. For its part, Telemundo’s soccer coverage has gotten a tremendous boost from hosting the World Cup and now the network has more forcefully promoted its own Premier League coverage in the first few months of the new season.
Overall, NBC Sports Group has focused its sporting properties on people who enjoy international sports and have worked to maintain a level of authenticity around the presentation even in advertisements during more mainstream American sporting events.
Christopher: It’s no surprise that part of the reason why viewing numbers for the Premier League have been strong can be tied back to the hard work that NBC Sports has done in promoting the league in the United States. Whether it’s advertising their coverage on TV networks and websites not affiliated with NBC Sports, promoting their coverage on subway cars and taxis throughout New York City, or highlighting Premier League coverage during NFL and the Olympics, NBC Sports are leaders in knowing how to get the word out about their coverage.
Behind the scenes, the PR department at NBC Sports is the most approachable and helpful of all of the different publicity departments at sports networks in the United States.
On top of all of this, NBC Sports knows how to mix things up to keep things fresh. That includes getting out of their comfort zone and taking their show on the road such as the recent Premier League fan fest in Washington DC (with more dates to be announced soon) as well as organizing different promotions with bars and pubs across the United States to promote their coverage.
- Grade: A (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: A (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: A
Kartik: Univision’s recent forays into European club football complement its already superior promotion of Liga MX broadcasts. Simply put, nobody promotes soccer more during non-soccer or non-sports events than Univision.
One of the outstanding aspects of Univision’s coverage in the past several months is the unrelenting promoting of UEFA Champions League and Bundesliga during Liga MX matches in addition to the BundesGol and SomosBundesliga bumper programs that should serve as templates of what FOX Sports could do on the English-language side with the same league.
Christopher: To add to Kartik’s praise of Univision, I’ve been particularly impressed by the way that Univision Deportes advertises on sites not owned or operated by the Spanish-language broadcaster. Also, their PR department is helpful and accessible, which helps to get the word out about all of the soccer coverage they share.
- Grade: A (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: B (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: B+
Kartik: FOX Sports does a decent job of pushing its soccer properties if they involve an American components. US Men’s and Women’s National Team matches as well as Major League Soccer enjoy strong promotion during FOX events of the network’s choosing. But all too often during FOX’s most-watched events, the NFL, College Football and Major League Baseball, promotion of soccer properties is absent. The network fails to promote its Bundesliga coverage even on other soccer programming unless an American angle is present, for example when Schalke or Borussia Dortmund which feature American men’s stars are playing.
The promotion of FOX’s streaming product FOX Soccer Match Pass has almost dissipated along with the attractive rights the network holds in the sport.
The approach from FOX is exemplified by a new Dr. Pepper commercial that airs during College Football games, where parents of a young boy are deeply offended their son is reading a magazine about soccer instead of about american football. FOX ultimately promotes soccer to audiences it feels it won’t offend by promoting soccer, which is ultimately different than the approach of NBC. FOX feels a certain generation of classic American sports fan sees soccer as foreign and offensive, much like the Dr. Pepper commercial which is marketing to American football fan implies. But then again, FOX’s entire manner of broadcasting sporting events and interaction with the audience is quite different from that of NBC, and reflects a certain degree of isolated Americanism that perhaps market research indicates is the network’s best bet for competing.
Christopher: Out of all of the public relations departments for sports networks in the United States, FOX Sports PR is by far the most incompetent, uncommunicative and disorganized group I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with in the 13 years that I’ve been running World Soccer Talk. There’s a reason that so many soccer fans get discouraged by the lack of promotion that FOX Sports gives to the Bundesliga in the United States, and it begins with the lack of communication from FOX Sports PR. It’s almost as if FOX Sports doesn’t care, which is a sad indictment for the home of the German league, one of the most entertaining soccer leagues on US television.
Public relations aside, the other promotion that FOX Sports gives to soccer isn’t much better. FOX relies on in-house ads to promote their leagues. The issue is that most soccer fans aren’t watching FOX Sports during weekdays, so the in-house ads aren’t reaching the target audience because they’re not tuning in. Outside of in-house ads, FOX Sports does very little to zero paid advertising to promote their soccer coverage on other websites. In contrast, you may have noticed NBC Sports promoting its Premier League TV coverage on websites such as BBC News, The Guardian, PremierLeague.com and other destinations for soccer fans.
FOX Sports does a good job at scheduling their soccer talent to appear on FOX Sports talking head shows to promote their soccer coverage. While it’s sometimes refreshing to hear people like Alexi Lalas and Rob Stone discussing soccer on talking head shows that hardly mention the word soccer, the tactic again falls flat on its face because soccer fans aren’t watching these broadcasts.
The only aspect of FOX’s promotion that works is their social media. But it’s opt-in, so if you like me don’t follow their social media accounts, you won’t get the updates and you’re out of the loop.
- Grade: C+ (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: F (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: D
Kartik: ESPN’s approach to promoting its extensive portfolio of soccer properties is a scattergun one. The Disney-owned network seems to subscribe at least partially to FOX’s thinking in terms of when and where to promote the sport. Similarly to FOX Sports, ESPN will promote MLS Cup Playoff matches and critical US Men’s and Women’s qualifiers or tournaments in passing during sporting events with a mainstream American following. However, ESPN’s promotions for these broadcasts appear more regularly than they do on FOX Sports, a reality that reflects in the television ratings.
But much like FOX, ESPN appears reluctant to advertise other soccer properties during events such as NFL, College Football, NBA or MLB games, and tends to stick to soccer programming to promote other soccer programming. That having been said, if you watch a MLS match on ESPN, you are likely to know when the next Serie A broadcast on one of the network’s linear channels is airing. If you watch the network’s anchor soccer program ESPNFC, which is on ESPN+ every day but makes somewhat random periodic appearances on the linear channels (such as on Friday October 5), you’ll know of every upcoming soccer-related broadcast on an ESPN over-the-air channel. But ESPN does need to promote its ESPN+ soccer portfolio better than it currently does, but that I trust is on its way as many of the most lucrative rights in the sport acquired by the streaming service have taken place in the past few months.
ESPN’s cross-promotion of soccer programming on ESPN Deportes is inconsistent and needs improvement. However, ESPN’s digital experience via its app or website does incorporate Deportes programming more consistently and seamlessly into what English-language dominant fans see based on their personal settings/preferences.
The lack of a soccer anchor program on FOX Sports is ultimately the biggest difference in how ESPN is able to leverage its platforms to promote soccer versus FOX. However, like FOX, ESPN falls short of the commitment level NBC demonstrates in assertively placing its marquee soccer properties on the same level as American sports.
Christopher: I’m more positive about ESPN’s promotion of soccer than Kartik is. For me, I’ve always been impressed by the amount of paid advertising that ESPN does outside of their ESPN websites to promote their coverage as well as external TV commercials that air on networks other than ESPN.
Many soccer fans complain they could do more, but my feeling is that they go above-and-beyond to promote the leagues they broadcast on television — almost to a fault where they promote MLS so much that you would expect the top-flight American league to generate massive TV ratings, which they do not.
- Grade: C (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: A- (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: B
Kartik: The primary broadcast carrier of NWSL has a spotty record of promoting matches. The run-up to each of the 2017 and 2018 NWSL Regular Seasons and playoffs were excellent with the network aggressively touting its property on other shows and even on other A&E owned networks including occasionally on Disney-owned broadcast channels. A&E networks have aired commercials during regular programming promoting NWSL and upcoming early season matches only to ramp down the advertising it seems during the middle portion of the season.
However, following that noticeable drop off in promotion that has occurred both on Lifetime itself and other A&E Network, both in 2017 and 2018 the advertising has been ramped up again as the post-season approached. Next season it would be nice to see more consistency.
Christopher: Honestly, I can’t remember any promotion that Lifetime has done to publicize their coverage of NWSL other than press releases from their PR department. Maybe I don’t watch the TV networks that Lifetime advertises their coverage of women’s soccer on, but I haven’t seen anything.
- Grade: B- (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: F (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: D
Kartik: At the time of writing, we assume (or perhaps more accurately hope) Turner’s approach to promoting UEFA Champions League broadcasts on TNT and an assortment of soccer properties on streaming service B/R Live is a work in progress. This is because outside of a few plugs on CNN and CNN International, promotion has been almost non-existent outside late running Internet ads as matchdays approach of Champions League. What’s worse is we’ve seen almost zero promotion of Turner’s other soccer properties streamed on B/R Live which are more numerous than many might be aware of.
Right now Turner’s promotion is poor and can only get better.
Christopher: I’ve seen Turner Sports promoting B/R Live on Facebook and Twitter ads as well as on select sites through the Google Adsense network, but outside of that paid advertising, there has been very little promotion to get the word out there about their TV coverage. The impression I get is that they overestimated the number of Bleacher Report website audience that would gravitate to their TV and online soccer coverage. There are so many soccer fans out there that don’t consume their soccer news or information from Bleacher Report.
What I will say is that their public relations department has been working diligently to get details out about their Champions League and Europa League coverage, so that’s a big positive compared to other networks.
- Grade: F (Kartik Krishnaiyer)
- Grade: C (Christopher Harris)
- Average grade: D
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