Category Archives: Soccer

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How European Soccer Conquered America (With Fox’s Help)

Chapter 3 of the book devotes three sections to soccer, and that was cut down from my initial draft of that part of the book. Because of the number of different important competitions represented, soccer presented several different examples of the fight between different sports outfits to pick up rights, and the most obvious example I found of how smaller, more niche sports and competitions benefitted from the competition. Even if soccer weren’t enjoying a boom in popularity, there would probably be a lot of it available on sports networks in the digital-cable era, especially given how much of it airs at times when no American sports are on. But my initial draft of the chapter would have spent a lot more time on the soccer boom itself, and just how much Fox Sports World/Fox Soccer Channel, and later ESPN’s World Cup coverage, contributed to it.

If I had to guess, I doubt anyone at Fox had any high-minded notions of increasing soccer’s popularity in the United States when they launched Fox Sports World. They just wanted to get their piece of the digital cable boom and supplement the Fox Sports Net group of regional sports networks they were building, and international rights Fox already held was an easy way to build such a network. Besides the rights Fox owned itself, the Prime network that was FSN’s foundation had aired a weekly hour-long highlight show of matches from England’s Premier League until losing the rights to ESPN in 1996, as well as airing the 1995 FA Cup final live, and operated a Spanish-language RSN in the Los Angeles area Fox converted into the (nationwide) Spanish-language version of Fox Sports World. To be sure, Fox ran an ad campaign for the network centered around its soccer coverage during the 1998 World Cup, less than a year into the network’s existence (until ESPN put the kibosh on cable companies and ABC affiliates running ads for a competitor), but Peter Ligouri, head of marketing for the division that included Fox Sports World and FSN, claimed the ads were targeted at people who were already familiar with the world-class leagues Fox Sports World aired. “We are not trying to grow the sport, we are trying to showcase our inventory,” he said. Even within Fox, it must have seemed doubtful anyone would be interested in FSW’s programming other than expatriates looking to keep up with the action back home.

Two years later, though, people at Fox were already starting to change their tune, as a quote from FSW’s then-general manager in the book shows. Fox Sports World’s programs, later Fox Soccer Channel’s programs, may have been shot out of broom closets at public-access budgets, but besides exposing many would-be soccer fans to action never before available in America (or in many cases, outside their home country) before, it served as a place where they could get soccer news and information at a time when the Internet was in its infancy, and became the hub of an entire soccer community, one destined to change the course of American soccer history. Their impact was already being felt in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, when they expressed outrage with ESPN’s lead announcer, Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer with limited soccer experience. As a result, part of John Skipper’s strategy for the 2010 Cup was to build an announce team consisting entirely of British announcers known for their work on the Premier League – mostly people that had appeared on ESPN’s coverage they had already begun sub-licencing from Fox.

Jon Miller, who helped create the NHL’s Winter Classic and became President of Programming for NBC Sports after the Comcast acquisition, tells a story about getting up early on a Saturday morning to play golf, only a year or two after the 2006 World Cup, and seeing the surprising sight of his son, having come in late the previous night, up barely five hours later watching Manchester United play. His other son also got up early to watch Liverpool games, and he saw other neighborhood kids get up at the crack of dawn to watch the Premier League. “I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something here to this.’ If you don’t learn from your kids you’re making a big mistake,” he reflected several years later. It was his first inkling of just how powerful a property the Premier League could be, and how successful it was already being for Fox Soccer, which would soon become Nielsen-rated and put numbers on the Premier League’s stateside popularity.

MLS, which had attempted to court youth soccer players at its launch, pivoted to embrace a more European model of soccer fandom based on older fans with more of a connection to the team. Seattle Sounders FC was a pioneer of the strategy; it reached out to local bars and restaurants at its launch and capitalized on many older fans’ connection with the team’s prior incarnation in the NASL, and was rewarded by shooting to the top of the league’s attendance charts, pulling in attendance figures higher than most MLS stadiums even held in capacity (many of them “soccer-specific stadiums” built in the preceding decade) and that would put them in the middle of the pack in the Premier League. By 2015, when the new New York City FC club created a new intra-New York rivalry, both sides did their best to try to imitate the European model of soccer fandom – in both its best and worst aspects: in August, fans of NYCFC and the older Red Bulls threw sandwich boards and curses at each other and sang taunts straight out of the English playbook. Thanks in part to increased interest in the league and the increased rights haul from the most recent television deal, MLS has also become a more attractive destination for players from around the world, even some in the prime of their careers, particularly from Latin America.

As for Fox Soccer, the international soccer fanbase it helped build not only proved its undoing, it ended up turning on its creator, the result both of its increased power as the fight for sports on cable heated up and the increased attention soccer was getting from people higher up the chain of command. Towards the end of Fox Soccer’s run, Fox began making a number of moves to target the general American sports market that succeeded only in alienating the hardcore soccer community it had built, the most infamous of them being an attempt to groom Gus Johnson as “the voice of American soccer”. Johnson had become a cult figure with his exuberant calls in the NCAA basketball tournament, but putting him on high-profile Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup matches with next to no soccer experience only led to him becoming nearly as reviled as O’Brien among soccer fans. The Johnson experiment and other ill-fated moves, and a general perception of falling behind ESPN in production quality, meant many soccer fans weren’t all that broken up to see Fox Soccer go. Fox Soccer, the chief vector for the increasing popularity of the sport in the United States, had ended up collapsing under the weight of the very phenomenon it helped spawn.

After Sepp Blatter: FIFA Reform, or Western Imperialism? (Or Neither?)

What can Vladimir Putin and Jeremy Schaap tell us about the just-concluded Sepp Blatter era at FIFA?

As the ongoing corruption scandal came to a head last week with the indictments of several prominent FIFA officials, something came to light that put Blatter’s reign in a new perspective for me, which I first learned from a clip from Schaap’s E:60 profile of the FIFA grand poobah: under FIFA’s rules, every nation gets one vote in all decisions, no matter their relative qualifications. The United States has exactly the same number of votes as Brazil, Germany, China, or Montserrat. So while you might think of UEFA as the strongest, most powerful of soccer’s continental confederations on the pitch, when it comes to decisions in the FIFA boardroom UEFA can only bring its 53 member organizations’ votes, roughly a quarter of FIFA’s 209 total – a not insignificant number, but small enough that once Africa and Asia’s confederations reaffirmed their support of Blatter, his reelection last week was all but assured no matter how much UEFA, its members, and the US condemned him.

This provides a glimpse into the source of Blatter’s power: by rallying the many small nations across the world to his cause. It’s easy to see why FIFA works this way: to make sure rich, well-heeled nations can’t push smaller, poorer nations out of their way in order to get their way. In theory, this structure makes sure FIFA works for the good of the game across the entire world, not just working for the interests of the most powerful nations. Blatter’s reign saw the World Cup held in South Africa, the first World Cup to be held anywhere on the African continent, and a vote to hold the World Cup in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, and Blatter has cited the growth of and investment into the game in smaller, poorer nations as one of the legacies of his reign. Most of the criticism of Blatter, FIFA, and the Qatar vote has come from the United States (whose own bid for the 2022 World Cup lost to Qatar), Europe, and other heavily Western-influenced nations (Australia was the other 2022 front-runner). If you were to try to defend FIFA and Blatter’s reign, this is where you would start: with the notion that this entire corruption sting, call for reform, and call to strip the 2022 World Cup from Qatar (and implicitly give it to the US or Australia) is an effort by the Western powers to grab power away from the poorer, smaller nations of the world, take the World Cup away from a small Middle Eastern nation, and appropriate more power (and another World Cup) for white people in the most powerful nations. Indeed, that’s pretty much how most of those that have attempted to defend Blatter, including Putin, have done so.

Of course, while the theory behind a “one-nation-one-vote” structure is to provide more power to smaller nations and prevent the bigger ones from muscling their way into getting their way, the reality is that it just gives a lot of power to people from nations with not a lot of resources, realistically not much to gain through legitimate channels, and (as Putin’s defense of Blatter points to) not much respect for democracy and the rule of law. That’s a recipe for a disproportionate number of those nations’ representatives to use their position to line their own pockets with little regard for the good of the game or of FIFA. Indeed most of last week’s indictments appear to have fallen on representatives of small nations in the Caribbean and South America. Qatar is hardly a poor, underprivileged nation; the general consensus in the Western nations seems to be that Qatar won the World Cup by slathering FIFA members in its considerable oil money. Rather than neuter the power of nations with the most money, FIFA’s governance structure simply gives the power to the nations with the most money and the least inhibitions against spending it illegitimately, by giving too much power to people most likely to resort to corruption.

But if FIFA’s corruption is baked into its governance structure, the prospects for reform might be dim. There’s no guarantee that when new elections for a new FIFA president are held later this year that the small nations won’t rally around a candidate that promises them business as usual (possibly while making enough public commitments to reform to shut up the critics), and it’s not clear they’re convinced enough of the need for reform that they’ll allow any reforms to go forward that might blunt their own power. Sepp Blatter may be just a symptom of a more systemic problem, and the resignation of one president means little when it comes to the thorny issue of cleaning up that problem.

2014 FIFA World Cup Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the numbers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in English and Spanish as far as I can determine given the severe constraints I had to work with. I complained last year about SportsBusiness Daily mysteriously completely dropping Univision’s numbers for the FIFA Confederations Cup, but this year the problem was much worse, because it’s the World Cup it dropped, including many of the most popular matches in the history of American Spanish-language television. Here’s hoping this madness ends with Telemundo taking over the World Cup. At least I managed to get enough numbers for the knockout stages that I’m fairly confident I have data for every knockout stage match over 3 million on Univision, but the group stage, especially the later part of the group stage, is more problematic; I have to assume I have every match with an audience over 5 million, but that might be a dicey proposition. Even the matches I do have I don’t have anything beyond the ten-thousands place, and I only have that much because of Sports Media Watch’s year-end ratings wrapup and doing the math based on the ESPN match-portion numbers.

Oh yes, that. ESPN wanted any mention of records or the actual ratings each match received to refer to the “match portion” of each window starting at the top of the hour, excluding the 30-minute pregame show, which SportsBusiness Daily and Sports Media Watch obliged them, but the official time slots according to Nielsen, which are thus more widely available from sites like Awful Announcing or TVbytheNumbers, include the pregame show, which could be as long as an hour if the United States was playing. To make matters worse, ESPN’s press releases tended to put out those match-portion numbers based on the fast nationals I don’t trust, which SMW ended up going with. So I had to hope each match finished in the top ten sports events on cable for the week to show up on SBD, and if it didn’t, hope ESPN reported numbers in its press releases or SMW found them out in other ways, or be stuck with the full-window numbers. And because the World Cup coincided with Douglas “Son of the Bronx” Pucci’s early days at Awful Announcing, when he was just posting top tens for each network with anything else being by request only, if a match was particularly lightly viewed I couldn’t even count on that.

Numbers for matches on ABC, as well as most ESPN match portions not marked as being fast nationals, from SportsBusiness Daily or Sports Media Watch. Other ESPN match portions from ESPN press releases. Numbers for ESPN full windows from Awful Announcing (household ratings) and TVbytheNumbers (18-49 ratings). Numbers in Spanish from Univision press releases and Sports Media Watch. Read More »

2013 Soccer Ratings Wrap-Up

As the World Cup starts to rev into gear, here are the top 10 most-viewed soccer matches of 2013 in both English and Spanish as well as regardless of language.

The World Cup qualifying matches between the United States and Mexico were two of the three most-watched soccer matches in 2013 across languages, bracketing the FIFA Confederations Cup final between Brazil and Spain, which was the most popular match not to involve either the American or Mexican national teams for both languages. The match at Stadio Azteca was the second-most popular match in each individual language and the most popular overall; the Confederations Cup final was fourth-most popular in English and fifth in Spanish. The CONCACAF Gold Cup final between the USA and Panama likely edged out the Costa Rica-Mexico qualifying match as the most popular match to involve only one of the two national teams, with the caveat that the Costa Rica-Mexico numbers include only viewership on Telemundo; both matches were the most popular in their respective languages, though it is not conclusive whether the Gold Cup final beat Mexico-USA in English. The Liga MX final between Club America and Cruz Azul was the most popular club match (and the third-most popular match in Spanish overall), while the UEFA Champions League final was the most popular club match in English.

Numbers for matches on broadcast from Sports Business Daily. Numbers for FIFA Confederations Cup matches, or any other match where household ratings are not available, on Univision and UniMas from Univision press releases. 18-49 numbers for Telemundo broadcasts from Telemundo press releases. Numbers for matches on ESPN networks from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 numbers for English-language broadcasts, when available, from TVbytheNumbers or The Futon Critic. Numbers for matches on Fox Soccer are not available.

Top 25 Most-Viewed Soccer Matches of 2013 Regardless of Language

  Vwr (mil) HH 18-49 Time Net
1 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. United States



3/26 10:30 PM

2 FIFA Confederations Cup Final:
Brazil v. Spain



6/30 6:00 PM

3 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Mexico




9/10 8:00 PM

4 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final:
United States v. Panama


7/28 3:30 PM

5 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Costa Rica v. Mexico



10/15 9:15 PM

6 Liga MX Final:
Club America v. Cruz Azul



5/26 8:50 PM

7 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Panama



10/11 9:00 PM

8 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. New Zealand




11/13 3:15 PM

9 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Mexico v. Italy


6/16 2:45 PM

10 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Honduras



9/6 9:15 PM

11 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
New Zealand v. Mexico




11/20 1:00 AM

12 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Jamaica



2/6 9:15 PM

13 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 2




12/15 6:50 PM

14 CONCACAF Gold Cup Semifinal:
Panama v. Mexico



7/24 9:36 PM

15 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Costa Rica




6/11 7:54 PM

16 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Brazil v. Mexico


6/19 3:00 PM

17 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Japan v. Mexico


6/22 3:00 PM

18 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Jamaica v. Mexico




6/4 9:15 PM

19 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 1





20 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Panama




6/11 10:00 PM

21 CONCACAF Gold Cup Quarterfinal:
Mexico v. Trinidad and Tobago



7/20 6:11 PM

22 FIFA Confederations Cup Third Place:
Uruguay v. Italy


6/30 12:00 PM

23 Liga MX: CD Guadalajara v. Club America



3/31 9:55 PM

24 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Panama v. Mexico




6/9 9:45 PM

25 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Honduras



6/18 8:30 PM


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2014 FIFA World Cup TV Schedule

With 100 days remaining until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, here is the complete schedule of games on the ESPN family of networks. All times Eastern.

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The Premier League is headed to NBC

It’s official: we are in the middle of a massive paradigm shift in the world of sports, and especially in how soccer is consumed in this country. Don’t believe me? With one exception that I bet won’t stay an exception for long, the top European leagues are now aligned with a network that didn’t exist a few months ago and an entity that didn’t have any soccer presence outside the Olympics a year ago.

I was somewhat shocked to find NBC bidding so aggressively that the Premier League reportedly told the incumbents, Fox and ESPN, late last week not to even bother showing up with a bid. Without the World Cup, with MLS for only two more years, with Formula 1 recently added to its portfolio, and with its dreams of competing with ESPN looking to be on life support, I didn’t think NBC had much motivation to make an aggressive bid for the Premier League.

In the end, though, after reading the announcement, I have to figure the deciding factor was the same one I thought might land NBC the World Cup but didn’t: NBC’s Spanish language presence. I get the impression the Premier League was never going to split up the English and Spanish language rights the way FIFA was willing to, and as a result, I have to imagine a big chunk of NBC’s bid – triple what Fox and ESPN’s joint bid was – was more to land Premier League rights for Telemundo and mun2 than for NBC Sports Network. Compared to most soccer rights, the Premier League has a disproportionately English-language audience in the United States, but it is still one of the two best soccer leagues in the world with multiple major teams, which I have to imagine still makes it a huge draw for Spanish-language eyeballs as well.

It sounds like NBC could make a concerted effort to put games on as many platforms as possible on a regular basis, including substantially more live games on the broadcast network than Fox was willing to show (maybe even involving teams not named Manchester United!), as well as CNBC, MSNBC, and maybe even Bravo or on a pay-per-view package, which could help resolve any Formula 1 conflicts; I can’t help but wonder whether Universal Sports might end up being an option, and whether or not it is could hint at the long-term plans for that network. (I’m very surprised to see USA even be brought up after NBC semi-publicly dropped all non-dog show sports programming from that network. Whether or not Comcast SportsNet might pick up Premier League games would be a very interesting possibility, fraught with plenty of political implications.)

I think this sends a pointed message that NBC has every intent on taking over the unified MLS package when that comes up in another year, possibly in both English and Spanish as well – although the Premier League deal will only coincide with a unified MLS deal for another year. As for the other contenders, while ESPN made noise about its continued commitment to soccer after losing the World Cup, I don’t see them as very motivated at all to hang on to MLS and US National Team rights, certainly compared to NBC and Fox; certainly this, combined with the earlier loss of UK Premier League rights, must make it a lot harder for them to hold on to Ian Darke and other English soccer announcers after the 2014 World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest impact, though, might be to Fox. What little chance there might have been that Fox wasn’t going to launch an all-sports network is gone now, and in all likelihood it’s going to launch at least two. Fox Soccer has lost almost all the programming that was worth it maintaining a separate identity; while Fox still has the Champions League and World Cup, they don’t do nearly as much to support the network as the Premier League did, and could easily survive the transition to a system of all-sports networks, while whatever else is left of Fox’s soccer programming might be kindly described as scraps. There is no reason for Fox to maintain Fox Soccer as a shell of its former self, and I fully expect Fox to be running at least one all-sports network by August 2013.

Without knowing how much beIN Sport bid, I have no way of knowing how much of this is NBC overbidding or ESPN and Fox underbidding. If NBC overbid, I have to wonder what their priorities are, as well as their grasp of the big picture given the F1 problem; some of Mark Lazarus’ comments in the SI interview linked above suggest NBC has become resigned to its third-place status and wants to carve a niche for the NBC Sports Network in the international sports scene (which again makes me wonder what the role of Universal Sports might be long-term). But if ESPN and Fox underbid, that would tell me that Fox may have already set its sights on transitioning Fox Soccer away from its soccer identity and was more concerned about dumping sport-specific network rights F1-style than anything else, even if the Premier League would have been valuable enough programming to add considerably to the value of a general Fox Sports network. Fox may have driven the final nail in Fox Soccer’s coffin itself.

Sport-Specific Networks
10.5 14.5 7 5.5 1 1.5

The latest on a potential suite of all-sports Fox networks

So, I said I was going to lay out how a trio of all-sports Fox networks would work, only to find that for the most part, it works with plenty of space to preserve non-live programming, even if you kill FCS. There was one weekend with a multitude of college football games clashing with a UFC event, Premier League soccer, baseball, AND the NASCAR Truck Series, but that’s the exception.

On the other hand, it’s now looking very, very likely to happen, because the English Premier League bidding has attracted as many as five bidders, with a surprising sixth kicking the tires but dropping out. If any but Fox (or marketing firm IMG) win, that is probably the death knell for Fox Soccer. ESPN, NBC, and beIN Sport would all love to be the ones to drive a stake into Fox’s heart, even if they don’t actually pull it off. Oddly, reportedly Discovery Networks, the group mostly known for its networks filled with documentaries (even if verging into the sensationalistic or “reality” these days), was kicking the tires on adding games to its Velocity network, the former HD Theater, one of a number of former HD channels from when HD was a novelty (existing more to show off the technology and lump together several networks’ programming for HD simulcasts than anything else) that now have very little reason to exist, but apparently decided against it.

I’m not surprised NBC didn’t put up much of a fight; I actually hadn’t considered them much of a player to begin with, and for all the pub the Premier League has gotten, F1 might actually net them comparable ratings. On the other hand, I don’t buy the argument that beIN Sport actually picked up too many rights to add the Premier League to that too; I think they’ve shown plenty of signs that they’re willing to launch a second network in each language if circumstances warrant. ESPN would love to get the rights but I think ultimately if they do, they sublicence a number of games to Fox or NBC. My hunch is that it’s a two-horse race between Fox and beIN Sport, with ESPN running a close third that might ultimately form a joint bid with one of the others (more likely Fox). Normally, I might call Fox the favorite, but as always, never underestimate the power of Arab oil money; at the very least, a Fox-ESPN joint bid might be necessary just to fend off beIN Sport.

What Arab oil has to do with the Premier League – and the sports TV wars

ESPN. Fox. NBC. Al Jazeera?

One thing that has become apparent to those following the world of international sports in recent years is that you don’t bleep with oil money. There’s no other way to explain why the United States lost the 2022 World Cup to Qatar of all places, in spite of all its problems. The richest horse race in the world is held in Dubai, as is the culminating event of the European Tour (last I checked Dubai is not in Europe, and I doubt it’s in a climate particularly conducive to golf courses). And American interest in soccer, at least European club soccer, could be shot down just as it’s getting off the ground by the whims of an Arab oil sheik.

Al Jazeera is best known to Americans as that group that aired Osama bin Laden’s tapes, and as such most Americans pretty much associate it with terrorists and thus its attempt to launch an English-language news network in the US has pretty much been a miserable failure. But over the past year it’s been on an astonishing run of acquiring US rights to international soccer leagues, winning rights to three of the five biggest leagues in Europe – Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 – which it will use to launch two new channels on Wednesday called beIN Sport.

But of course, the big daddy of European soccer rights in the US by a long shot is the English Premier League, and that has to have people at Fox quaking in their boots. Fox has already lost the rights to MLS to NBC, and Serie A to the new beIN Sport operation. It still has rights to the UEFA Champions League and newly-acquired World Cup rights, but the English Premier League is the bread and butter of their Fox Soccer operation. Lose that, and you might as well move what’s left to a Fox Sports network and shutter Fox Soccer, convert it to Fox Sports 1 or 2, or sell it to the beIN Sport people. Already competitor GolTV has lost the rights to its own La Liga bread and butter, leaving it with not much more than the German Bundesliga, the Brazilian league, and some scattered international competition.

If Fox has to be worried about the prospect of these upstarts from Qatar stealing Premier League rights, American soccer fans have to be absolutely terrified. A lot of work has been done to get to the point where a substantial number of Americans are now interested in the Premier League and to a lesser extent European soccer in general, and beIN Sport could end up destroying all of it. Not even the NFL can launch a network from scratch in less than a year and get anything close to wide distribution, and even Fox Soccer doesn’t have as much distribution as you might think. How quickly can beIN Sport even get to Fox Soccer’s level? A year? Two years? Five years? (It doesn’t help that a lot that beIN Sport has done has been kept low-profile, almost secret, to the point that it’s not even clear what carriage agreements beIN Sport has signed, but the list of providers to call on their Web site indicates it includes none of the biggest ones.)

beIN Sport has already declared it has no plans to sublicence any games to anyone, meaning the sizable stateside fandom of Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid used to seeing games on GolTV and ESPN are already screwed. For the same to happen to the Premier League, so soon after Fox’s much-publicized experiment in airing every game of the Premier League’s final week, could be potentially catastrophic. And what of ESPN? They’ve gone on a full-court press promoting their embrace of soccer, even after losing the World Cup to Fox. But what if they can’t air Premier League or La Liga games anymore either? They’ll still have MLS, some National Team games, and the Euro tournament, but will that be worth it?

ESPN’s UK operation has already lost the rights to the Premier League, which could reduce ESPN’s motivation to keep airing it in the States. Fox will surely have motivation to keep the backbone of Fox Soccer, but will that be enough to counter seemingly bottomless piles of oil money? Soccer fans should enjoy the current relative glut of European soccer on television, especially the recent thrilling Premier League finish, while it lasts, because it might not for much longer. And they should root hard for Fox, as well as anyone else – ESPN, NBC, even CBS Sports Network or truTV, or a strange bedfellows alliance between two or more of them – in the sports TV wars interested in the Premier League rights, lest soccer in this country end up set back decades.

Then again, maybe beIN Sport can round up cable providers with no problems whatsoever… in which case the sports TV wars, and maybe the larger American media industry, might just have a new contender.

Catching up on the sports television wars

I stopped doing my Sports TV Wars posts in an attempt to reserve all my blogging time for football posts, so let’s not wait any longer to catch up on the developments from the last two months.

The World Cup bidding ended in a double upset, making the Wars far more interesting: Fox stealing the World Cup from ESPN (and indirectly NBC) and Telemundo stealing the Spanish language rights from Univision. I had thought Fox’s lack of MLS coverage, the main motivating factor behind their bid, would ultimately kill it because of FIFA’s desire for the winner to go all out to promote the sport in the US. I also thought NBC still had more motivation to grow Versus and establish their soccer brand. Instead, Fox sent a strong message that they are not to be ignored. I would expect most non-broadcast World Cup games to air on FX; the main value for Fox Soccer Channel will be all the lesser tournaments they now hold the rights to, filling the spring and summer programming time MLS left behind. Time will tell if this presages an effort to steal the MLS contract out from under both ESPN and NBC in a few years.

I was also surprised Telemundo even went ahead with a bid without corporate sibling NBC picking up English language rights, but apparently it may have been the other way around. (Which shouldn’t be surprising, considering Telemundo paid $100 million more than Fox.)


  • The Tennis Channel extended their rights agreement with the WTA Tour through 2016. ESPN3 reached an agreement with the WTA in the same deal. I’m not sure whether to count that half-and-half between Tennis Channel and ESPN or all Tennis Channel, but I’m going to do the latter for now.
  • Nearly a year after announcing it was dropping the “College” from its name, CBS Sports Network has finally picked up a non-college contract! Sure, it’s with super-tiny Major League Lacrosse, but still!
  • We then had a slow period through the rest of November and into December until just the other day, when ESPN extended its agreement with the NCAA for its non-men’s basketball championships, swiping some lesser women’s championships from CBS Sports Network and making me pine even more wistfully for what might have been had ESPN trumped CBS and Turner for March Madness.

Yes, I know I’m ignoring a far greater prize that was just awarded. But despite being essentially a formality, it’s a deal that’s far too big not to deserve its own post, for reasons that have nothing to do with who won them. More on that later.

Sport-Specific Networks
5 4.5 3.5 1.5 0 1.5

Why MLS may be making a huge mistake

The Seattle Sounders have become the envy of all of MLS, succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams for an MLS team, with by far the best fanbase in the league. From the day it started, the Sounders have been a truly major-league franchise in Seattle, something pretty much every other MLS team can only dream of. It would seem logical that if the MLS wanted to become a major league, if it wanted to continue its trajectory of growth, that its strategy for growth would be to find out what the Sounders are doing right and replicate it for their other franchises.

But there is one aspect of the Sounders’ success that suggests one thing that MLS has been doing – something that has been the cornerstone of its strategy for the health and growth of the league – may ultimately hold it back.

One thing the Sounders have become known for perhaps above all else in league circles is the experience on game day, which is widely praised as something unlike any other team in the league. Sounders fans pack CenturyLink Field to numbers unheard of for virtually any other franchise and create an atmosphere even the Sounders themselves can have trouble dealing with. The experience of a Sounders home game has been compared to that of a Premier League game. Hearing this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Sounders have, by far, the largest attendance in the league, to the extent that the upper bowl of CenturyLink is covered up, not because the tickets there can’t be sold, but to keep the Sounders from having an even larger crowd advantage and create a more intimate atmosphere.

But that massive attendance hides a dirty little secret: there is only one other stadium in the entire league that could even hold as many people as the Sounders regularly fill CenturyLink with, DC United’s RFK Stadium. (Although the Houston Dynamo’s Robertson Stadium comes close at 32,000.)

Over the last decade, MLS has moved all but two of the remaining teams into “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities around 20,000. The idea behind it seemed simple and innocuous enough: at the league’s founding, teams were struggling to fill cavernous NFL facilities that regularly topped 60,000. Soccer-specific stadiums would give teams a place of their own to call home, rather than piggybacking on the local NFL team, and NFL stadiums wouldn’t need to be contorted to fit a soccer pitch. And by reducing the capacity to something closer to, yet still greater than, what most if not all MLS teams were drawing at the time, it would create a more intimate environment that would draw fans closer to their teams.

But by setting the ideal size of a soccer-specific stadium at around 20,000, MLS was effectively accepting that the popularity of the league would never exceed that level – and that its fans would never reach the number, and the gameday experience would never achieve the quality, seen in Europe. 20,000 isn’t “normal” in the Premier League – that’s the size of its current smallest stadium, and there are only five MLS venues, one of them only barely, with larger capacities than that of Wigan’s home stadium, third-smallest in the EPL. The league’s top teams don’t seem to have a problem playing in stadiums with over 40,000 capacity. The Sounders’ success – at attendance levels that would be only mid-pack in the EPL – should have sent a message to the league that it didn’t have to accept 20,000 as its ceiling. Yet the league continues to build soccer-specific stadiums unabated; next year’s expansion Montreal Impact could never place higher than third or fourth in attendance this year, no matter what they did, thanks to the size of its stadium.

Besides the Sounders, four teams in the league are filling their stadiums to over 95% capacity: the Portland Timbers, the Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City, and the San Jose Earthquakes. Throw out the Earthquakes, who are still the lowest-attendance team in the league despite their stadium-filling prowess thanks to a whopping 10,000-seat stopgap stadium, and the other three teams all have stadiums below 19,000 capacity, yet all place in the top half of the league’s attendance figures. None of the three have any plans to move into new stadiums or renovate their current ones, and in fact all three just moved into new facilities within the last two years. The Timbers and Union are fairly new franchises, but they seem to have strangled their capabilities to become Sounders-caliber franchises in the crib – especially galling in the case of the big-market Union.

Another two teams – the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC – are filling their stadiums to over 90% capacity. Yet despite having the third- and fourth-highest attendances in the league respectively, behind the Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy, neither has any plans to move or renovate their stadiums either, though that’s not as outrageous as with the other teams. Toronto could conceivably expand BMO Field into the fourth-largest stadium in the league, but that’s nowhere near becoming a reality, and the Whitecaps are one of the three teams in the league that plays in a non-soccer-specific stadium but covers up seats, so expanding BC Place’s capacity, if warranted, would cost nothing.

More to the point, all these teams except Sporting Kansas City are fairly recent additions to the league, and their strategies reflect not only the lessons learned from what the Sounders did right, but what the early days of MLS did wrong. Most of the league’s early franchises still have not recovered from the catastrophic mistakes of MLS’ early days that alienated the existing soccer fanbase without attracting many casual fans. More recent franchises, founded in 2007 and later, have found more success, but will continue to be hamstrung by a stadium capacity limit set for the older, less successful franchises, during a less successful period for the league.

Of all the teams in the entire top half of the league in attendance, only three existed in their current markets prior to 2006: the Galaxy, Sporting KC, and the New York Red Bulls. Two of those teams renamed and, thus, rebranded their teams during that time, and two of those teams are in the top two markets in the country, making it relatively easy to attract a sizeable fanbase without being that major of a team.

Even more to the point, only three franchises founded in 2005 or later, all before 2007, aren’t filling their stadiums to 90% capacity: the Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, and Real Salt Lake. I can’t stress this enough: every single expansion team since Toronto is filling their stadium to over 90% capacity. The Dynamo, as mentioned earlier, play in 32,000-seat Robertson Stadium, and are mid-pack in attendance (and will be moving to a soccer-specific stadium next year); Chivas plays in the fourth-largest stadium in the league, the Home Depot Center, where they play second-fiddle to the Galaxy; and Real Salt Lake is pretty close at 88%. The clincher? The four worst teams in the league in attendance not only existed prior to 2005, but were around for the league’s inaugural season in 1996.

Many of the league’s older franchises continue to struggle to fill their stadiums, even those in soccer-specific stadiums, but as Sporting KC is showing, that need not be the case forever, even though the Galaxy, despite their success on and off the pitch, are only filling 86% of the Home Depot Center. As the league continues to grow in popularity, their focus should be on continuing to grow all their franchises, including the established ones, to the levels of success the expansion franchises are seeing, to bring their entire league into the future. In this, their mantra should be: every team a Seattle. But if they continue pushing “soccer-specific stadiums”, it will only have the effect of keeping their new franchises in the past.