Tuesday, March 31, 2009

For the love of Tommy Smyth, say it ain't so!

AP Photo/Barnat Armangue

The Associated Press has published that Fox Soccer Channel has beaten out ESPN for U.S. broadcast rights of the Union of European Football Associations Champions League games. ESPN previously had the broadcast rights to the UEFA Champions League since 1994.

This has huge ramifications on the soccer coverage in America. According to the same Associated Press report, ESPN and ESPN2 are available in 98 million homes, compared to Fox Soccer Channel, which is only available in 34 million, as well as having no broadcasts in high-definition. Also, with ESPN losing the rights, they also cannot stream and replay those matches on ESPN360, which is also much more accessible than FSC. This would be like the newly created MLB Network buying the rights to broadcast the MLB playoffs and World Series.

FSC already has the U.S. broadcast rights to the English Premier League and the Italian Serie A, as well as sharing MLS matches with ESPN and other networks. Now they also get Champions League. Instead of beefing up its soccer coverage for an increasing market—just take a look at the expansion of MLS—ESPN has now lost some premier matches. In trying to improve the audience interest in the sport, fans need to see soccer played at its highest level, in order to create a higher interest, appreciation, and understanding of the intricacies of the game at the level that only teams like Manchester United or Barcelona can perform best. ESPN also has the best platform to reach out to soccer fans and non-soccer fans alike.

The Champions League, for the most part, takes place over the winter months, when MLS teams are in their offseason. Beneficial to coverage in this country, it kept some type of soccer on television year round, so that once the MLS season finished, the sport would not fade into oblivion. MLS also can’t draw the marquee players. Sure, David Beckham signed to the league, but MLS, because of roster rules and the salary cap, only has a few of these types of players for the entire league. Teams like Barcelona can afford to sign a whole team of marquee names, like Thierry Henry, Lionel Messi, and Samuel Eto’o. Broadcasting the Champions League allowed viewers access to the most famous names in soccer overseas that they couldn’t get anywhere else on television.

ESPN certainly has the resources to outbid FSC, it seems however, that they just cared not to, and that is a discouraging sign for the American soccer viewing public.

So what happens now?

Well, ESPN still has rights to the World Cup, soccer’s biggest showcase, in 2010 and 2014. Hopefully, it makes a play to keep those rights even longer, keeping the game’s biggest stage on the most accessible network. They also own the rights to U.S. men’s national team games through 2014, promoting the country’s finest players. So, international competition is still safe for another five years.

ESPN also shares rights with FSC for MLS, airing one game per week. It is a great platform for the league to get exposure. Without having the Champions League, ESPN may have more financial flexibility and broadcasting space to devote more of its soccer coverage to the MLS, which is great. However, what happens when the season ends? How does ESPN continue to promote soccer in the offseason, without games to watch? How does the network increase the sport’s visibility?

FSC is strictly a soccer station, and can devote all its attention to promoting the game. However, in this country, there is the visibility factor. Soccer isn’t as mainstream as football or baseball. Americans may not know who the best players in the world are because they’ve never watched them on TV. FSC isn’t available to every person in this country, and the non-fan that’s interested in checking out what the buzz is about isn’t going to buy a subscription to FSC to check it out. ESPN was good for bringing in the casual fan.

ESPN needs to strengthen its position in the soccer universe. How can the worldwide leader in sports have so little coverage of the world’s game?

1 comment:

  1. such bullshit bro...i look forward to Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 2:00 UEFA games man....Chelsea been my squad ever since I played with them in Fifa 06 haha