Friday, December 26, 2008

ESPN & the EPL in America

Why does soccer, European, American, or otherwise, not find the same scope of coverage on American television as other major sports?

The simple answer would be to accept that the sport is simply not as popular as its three major competitors. Analysis of the Nielsen viewing numbers may offer insight into the phenomenon and answer the question: Are people watching?

Perhaps they are not, and the lack of interest in America for the world’s most popular game is related to our own consumption of sports in this country. Are Americans simply used to watching the “big three”, just as the major networks are used to broadcasting them?

Or perhaps there is, in fact, a contingent of Americans, combined with Europeans living in America, who are willing and waiting to mass-consume world football as a marketable, elite sport.

Major world and European soccer tournaments find substantial viewership bi-yearly on ESPN, but strangely domestic American club soccer has failed to contend with baseball, basketball, or football for the sustained interest of most Americans.

Although there are some signs that soccer’s maligned trend for anonymity in America may be curbing, it is unlikely to change drastically in the short-term. Many reasons for this phenomenon are found within the production philosophies of soccer’s major carriers, the psyche of the American sporting public, and the sentiments cultivated from the sporting media, a negative image returned in kind by most consumers.

Producing the game

Although there is a contrast in production quality between the major soccer broadcast networks in America, ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), the American sporting production philosophy is shared by both. The UEFA European matches on ESPN have higher ratings than MLS games because the European game is more popular; but, there is another difference which may be impactful.

In-match commentary for UEFA matches are provided by relatively established European commentators, using the stereotypically British combination of an officious, English play-by-play announcer with an opinionated northerner giving color remarks. Having drawn over one million viewers in last year’s finale, the long-running competition is a reasonably successful formula for the Bristol, Ct. sports network.

However, a slightly different, more contrasting philosophy is employed during the production of the American MLS Soccer brand, as evidenced during MLS Primetime on Thursday nights, utilizing a production style derived from the successes of other American sports.

Many commentators are former players; producers utilize soft stories to build human interest; sideline reporters give the “inside scoop” on touchline proceedings; and hackneyed studio analysts sustain consumer attention during extensive pregame, postgame, and halftime packages.

In short, while ESPN has the dedicated money to producing visually attractive soccer in high-definition, with many cameras and original commentary, it fails by trying to present the MLS as an American sport, instead of embracing the successful elements in English and European leagues.

Evoking the production models of other American sports has not proved successful for ESPN and MLS; the formulaic veins of commentary and production cater to the fans that are already interested in the other sports where the formulas originated.

They are unlikely to enjoy soccer casually, and not immediately; while soccer fans, European-American, or slightly socially deviant Americans, often gravitated to the sport sometimes by a dislike of these formulas, are left to consume these design and delivery elements derived from the sports they have grown to dislike.

Short of hiring established commentators from Europe to cover MLS matches, ESPN could break from English tradition to promote younger Americans to provide fresh commentary, provided they are knowledgeable.

In 2006, Allen Hopkins joined ESPN from Fox, where he had provided unique, vibrant commentary to European and South American matches, to cover the World Cup. However, his role was reduced to working soft angles and covering sideline field reporting.

Instead, Dave O’ Brien, a baseball announcer who had never covered the game before, handled play-by-play coverage during 2006, which led to many Americans switching to Univision, a Spanish-speaking cable channel, to avoid listening to O’Brien’s ignorant relaying of the game.

Fox Soccer Channel takes a similar approach to production, but fails admirably. Despite being part of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, FSC appears to suffer from a lack of resource and identity.

FSC allows advertisements to take up roughly 30 percent of the viewing screen, at times, during matches. Fox Soccer Report, the SportsCenter of FSC, is actually produced independently in Canada by a private media company.

The disparity in quality between the Report’s set and design and that of its ESPN counterpart is glaringly apparent at first glance: FSR tries to adopt the futuristic, graphical appeal of its competitor but falls short drastically without the funding to produce it visually.

FSC has tried to push original programming, but few analysts and programs have managed to stand the test one season brought.

However, FSC gets one aesthetic right, generally sub-contracting the commentary for its EPL broadcasts from the British announcers at the match, which leads to a since of authenticity and realism. Generally, ESPN studio analysts are just that; in the studio, while their commentary teams are often in Connecticut as well, when the action is taking place overseas.

Ratings, hopes up in 2008

In March 2008, after a full season with MLS, ESPN invested $64 million in an eight-year deal with MLS. The deal featured a regular Thursday night time slot and high-definition video and audio feeds.

JP Dellacamera, former professional and American national team player, and current analyst for ABC/ESPN, said: “I’m encouraged by the way ESPN is talking about covering MLS this year and like the dedication they seem to have for not just the MLS but for soccer as a whole.”

European club matches also performed well: The 2008 UEFA Champions League Final between English clubs Manchester United and Chelsea FC yielded a .8 rating, averaging 798,000 homes and 1,097,000 viewers, the single highest rating for a UEFA match in ESPN’s history, marking the first of 218 UEFA broadcasts on the network when viewership topped the one million mark.

In the summer of the same year ESPN carried all 31 games from the European Championship in Austria and Switzerland. All games were broadcast in high definition. Ratings were very good.

Through 16 matches of the tournament, ESPN2 averaged a .5 rating, up 67 percent from the time period a year before. Through six matches, including the quarterfinals, ESPN averaged a .9 rating, up 80 percent from the prior year.

The final from the tournament yielded a 3.1 overnight rating, which, according to, “shows is that there is a noteworthy, if smaller, audience on American television for big event international soccer outside the World Cup, both with and without local teams to drive it.”

In 2005, ESPN paid $100 million for the broadcasting rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. The Connecticut based giant is also rumored to be interested in the broadcasting rights to the EPL when Fox’s deal expires in 2010. ESPN also recently inked a deal with the Italian Football Association to broadcast Italian top-flight and Italian Cup matches live online

Since 1998, Fox Soccer Channel has also been covering European national and club matches, with much greater density than ESPN. Fox, under Australian giant News Corporation, currently broadcasts English Premier League soccer in America, also having rights to Italian and South American club matches and various international matches.

However, until Oct. 1, FSC was not covered under Nielsen ratings. The Fox channel paid $7.5 million a year to be rated by Nielsen, the rating system used to gauge television watching habits in America.

“This is a big step for our network,” said David Sternberg, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Soccer Channel. “It will really put us on the map with the advertising community in a way we haven’t been.”

Early reports were outstanding. EPL viewership totals on the channel are just below ESPN2 MLS numbers, even though the EPL is aired on weekend mornings on a channel that goes to 33 million homes, compared to the prime-time spot on ESPN2—a network that reaches 96 million households—that the MLS enjoys.

The FSC broadcast of Manchester City-Liverpool, at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5, yielded 224,000 viewers, scarcely less than the 261,000 viewers tuning in, on average, to watch MLS Primetime Thursday on ESPN2.

Throughout the first two weeks of Nielsen coverage of FSC, European club matches severely outdrew domestic matches on the channel. MLS broadcasts of DC United-Chivas USA drew 39,000 viewers and FC Dallas-Toronto FC drew 32,000 viewers, while a college game between the University of South Florida and Louisville drew 20,000 viewers.

Matches between Manchester United-Blackburn and Liverpool-Manchester City drew over 200,000 viewers each. Both top-rated matches beat out NASCAR coverage airing concurrently on Speed, and the Liverpool-Manchester City match beat out NFL Primetime coverage airing concurrently on ESPN.

While soccer is not nearly as successful as other, dominant American sports, the recent data on both ESPN and FSC reveals promising prospects for the success of soccer on American airwaves. There is a substantial demographic for consuming European club soccer, as evidenced by the Nielsen ratings, if the content is delivered in the right way to the right people.

Time for ESPN to fully embrace the game

Fox Soccer Channel is credited with almost a decade of experience broadcasting EPL games, with little resources, against the grain of prevailing American sports culture.

The lack of dedication from the echelons at News Corporation, though, means FSC, in addition to being in standard definition, does not have the money to spend on the proper production and promotion of the game on the channel. Nor can they create quality original programming and otherwise capitalize on the exclusive featuring of the popular league on cable television.

Without the required funding and dedication from its front offices, Fox will likely be forced to relinquish the torch to ESPN, and the sport itself should benefit.

The coverage of the English top flight on ESPN has become a prospect in 2010, when the deal with Fox Soccer Channel and the EPL expires. ESPN’s recent deal in November, 2008 with Irish broadcaster Setanta over coverage of lower league English matches highlights a possible working relationship to broadcast EPL matches. An editor at editor describes it thus:

"If ESPN can make a move like this, what’s stopping them from aggressively bidding for the TV rights to the Premier League when they go on the auction block next year? Fox Soccer Channel currently owns the TV rights in the United States and sub-licenses many of the games to Setanta Sports, but Fox’s ownership of the rights will be in serious jeopardy if ESPN decides to throw its hat in the ring."

Viewing numbers already indicate niche, morning broadcasts of the EPL on ESPN would yield very positive numbers, as the FSC broadcasts of EPL already compete numerically with ESPN’s soccer coverage, despite being shown in less than half the households across the country, as stated.

ESPN has the monetary resources, high-definition television infrastructure, and advertising and marketing connections to make the game truly popular in our country.

The international network also has national credibility as a sports media provider; indeed, they are the trusted name for sports in America.

Just as so many millions watch college and professional football on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so too would the millions of European soccer fanatics tune in to watch high-definition broadcasts of the English Premier League or Italian Serie A during the early weekend mornings, otherwise dominated by reruns and extensive pregame shows.

In addition to the large faction of American-based fans already obsessed with English and European soccer, broadcasting the EPL on ESPN would bring in the casual fan who wakes up to ESPN anyway. MLS would invariably benefit from soccer’s increased exposure, especially as ESPN could advertise MLS matches during EPL games to casual and avid fans.

However, for the cruel cycle of soccer history in America to break, it requires the courage and dedication of the American sports media, projected to the viewing public with authenticity. Soccer is a simple and natural game, to be viewed intuitively, without constant replays, montages, sideline reports, and other predominant American aesthetics.

Respect to the tradition of the sport, although foreign in origin, is required; America did not invent this game, as it did the other three flagship sports, but we can still embrace it.

A dedication to soccer from the trusted Disney Company would bring great validity to the game across the American sporting consciousness: If ESPN takes it seriously, the American viewing public, and the American sports fan, will too.

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