Last week Fox Soccer Channel bought up the North American rights to the UEFA Champions League, formerly owned by ESPN, through 2012. Fox will broadcast all 146 matches on FSC, Fox Sports Espanol, and Fox Sports Net channels in an effort increase overall distribution and expedite the transition to HD, to begin at the end of 2009.
David Sternberg, the Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Fox Sports International spoke with me about the various challenges MLS is faced with and how FSC propels MLS in the marketplace.
Above all, Sternberg was adamant about MLS competing in international tournaments and the importance of the international element in American soccer, a component taken for granted overseas.
Sternberg: “The international element is very important. It creates a context for the sport when you have MLS teams playing against teams from Mexico or Central America or other countries in meaningful competitions. It puts a league more on the map in other countries and makes it a more viable option for international players because they know they can still get exposure and visibility if they come here to play in MLS. And it makes the teams better. It’s not a question of [MLS] being on a par with anything like Premier League or UEFA Champions League now, but that’s the objective – to have MLS be as attractive to our viewers and business partners, our advertisers and cable distributors, as those other leagues.
MLS didn’t do very well in the CONCACAF Champions league and I can guarantee you the embarrassment of not having done well is going to be a big motivator for the league to take that competition very seriously going forward. And play in more meaningful tournaments against international clubs. The CONCACAF Championship is a start, but maybe some kind of competition against European clubs.
LE: This summer, Chelsea plays the Sounders, AC Milan plays the Galaxy, and World Football Challenge [Inter Milan, AC Milan, Club America, and Chelsea] plays it’s inaugural tournament. Are these matches evidence of this direction?
Sternberg: Yeah, but the interesting thing is [Football Challenge teams] are not playing any MLS clubs, they’re just playing one another. Part of what MLS has to do is find a way to expand the roster so the teams have more fresh legs to participate in multiple competitions at the same time.
LE: Expand the roster in quantity or quality?
Sternberg: First and foremost it’s about the quantity, having more players on the bench that you can use if you’re playing multiple games in a week, but clearly the quality is an important piece of it too. They’ve got to be more competitive when it comes to keeping US-bred players, but also bringing in international players, as they’ve done here and there with Cuautehmoc Blanco and Barros Schelloto from Argentina.
I don’t know if the DP is the ultimate solution. That’s clearly for the league to figure out, but I think it’s a legitimate question – whether you’re better off spending millions of dollars on one guy or taking that money and spreading it out across four or five people who are experienced, skilled, and can really elevate you. Columbus did pretty well last year without one. I just don’t know in my own mind if the way it’s set up now is the best way to do it.
LE: Should MLS remove or raise the salary cap?
Sternberg: I can’t comment on that, I’d get in trouble with my partners in New York! But I think one [alternative] could be to flatten the salary scale a little bit so you’ve got more guys making X and maybe not as many guys making X plus Y.
LE: Who is watching MLS in the US, and who do you need to attract?
Sternberg: The target audience for us is male viewers 18-49; that’s the demographic set that we sell advertising against, so that’s really where most of our marketing energies are focused. We’re about the programming before anything else, but it’s important that when we market the programming we’re getting the kinds of viewers that our advertisers will pay us to reach.
LE: In the US, the fan population is quite segmented. We have European, MLS, women’s, youth, USL, and Hispanic fans. How do you connect these people? Isn’t this really your major issue?
Sternberg: The Hispanic market is obviously tremendously important and we have a separate network, Fox Sports in Espanol, that just televises soccer in Spanish. We also have an English language audio track on that channel so if you’re trying to reach Hispanics who are more English dominant then you can get them that way as well. At FSC it’s a big tent, we want all those groups and we try very hard to market to those different segments to build up the biggest possible audience.
The hardcore ex-pat European soccer fan is going to find us, they always have, they’ve been watching us for 11-12 years since we launched the network. Where we need to do more is precisely in that women’s and youth area where the connection with soccer today is much more at the participatory level, and we want them to embrace soccer as a spectator sport, something to watch on television.
LE: Women’s soccer, how are you promoting it?
Sternberg: A lot of it is grassroots promotion. On the web we’re going to sites where ordinarily we wouldn’t market, but where there may be more of a female sports audience. And it’s all about getting male viewers to be interested in it. Most of our viewers are male and that’s not going to change.
LE: Most viewers of women’s professional soccer are male?
Sternberg: Yes. Most viewers of the channel are male, probably about 70%.
LE: Do you have any statistics on the women’s game?
Sternberg: Not yet. We’re starting to see some data, I mean we’ve had two games. The first game, the audience still skewed a little bit more male, it wasn’t quite 78-22 but it was a majority male audience. That’s not going to change, but we are going to try to get more women to sample the network as a whole.
There’s organizational politics in all sports and soccer may have a little more than others, but we see it as an opportunity. One thing I will give MLS credit for is from a commercial standpoint they’ve really stepped up and taken the reins on a lot of important pieces of the puzzle.
They do the sponsorship and marketing not only for their own league, but they do it for the US Soccer Federation and they do it for WPS. It’s Soccer United Marketing doing the sponsorship sales for WPS.
LE: How do you look at expansion?
Sternberg: It’s a good thing if they’re cities where we want to try to build our distribution. Portland is a good example of a city where right now we don’t have significant distribution, so having an MLS franchise there will help us in terms of demonstrating the value proposition of our channel to the cable operators there.
LE: How important are soccer specific stadiums?
Sternberg: Very important. The atmosphere of going to an MLS game or watching one even on TV is far superior if it’s in a 20,000–25,000 seat stadium 75-80% full, than if you have that same 20,000 people sitting in an 80,000 seat NFL stadium. The enthusiasm and the energy that you have in that more intimate setting really makes the experience more enjoyable. It translates on television too.
LE: What are the issues you face broadcasting live game across four time zones?
Sternberg: There’s no question that it’s difficult to get a big audience on the East Coast for a match that starts at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but one of the things that we’ve done this year is increase the number of exclusive time slots that we have for our Saturday Game of the Week. Although it’s early days yet, we’re going to see much better ratings just by virtue of not having to go up against other games on a local TV station. A lot of our games are on the East Coast and there are ten out of thirty-three games that start at 10PM or later.
LE: What are the estimated losses on those games?
Sternberg: We have as good a number on those West Coast games as we do on the East Coast games, but what we found is that our ratings are driven much more: A) by the match-up; and B) by the exclusivity of our time slot, meaning that there is no other MLS game going on during that time that would be on a local TV station by any other broadcaster.
LE: What is the biggest challenge of broadcasting MLS in the United States?
Sternberg: The biggest challenge is to make MLS soccer appealing to as big an audience as possible and as broad an audience as possible. We have a lot of hardcore soccer fans that come to our network to watch international soccer, but if we were just to rely on those folks we wouldn’t reach our audience goals, so it’s important for us also to draw in more casual sports fans who are more interested in the traditional American sports.
You have to turn more of the participants in soccer, youth soccer especially, into fans of the game as a spectator sport. It’s also getting MLS plugged in, as they’re starting to do, more to the international systems – so that aspect of soccer which is such a big part of its popularity in Europe and Latin America, also is present here.
Images courtesy of Fox Soccer.