In the last two years, Fox Sports and ESPN made big leaps in broadcasting MLS games and tournaments in the US, improving the quality of coverage as well as the quantity. Competing with simultaneous sports broadcasts and navigating the Spanish language divide, league changes, and access into regional markets, Fox and ESPN are powerful creatures with tentacles reaching into MLS, foreign leagues, and the consumer marketplace.
Last week Fox Soccer Channel (FSC) 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 to increase overall distribution and expedite the transition to HD, to begin at the end of 2009.
In 2008, FSC was in 35,000-40,000 million households, as compared to ESPN’s 98 million households, and FSC projects 50 million by 2012. Current viewage burns down to a .1 household rating for MLS or 43,000 individuals, but for some games rating were four times as high.
Networks seek diverse audience, increased international influence
US soccer fans are a diverse crew with little respect for each other, the language generally unprintable. There are the ex-pat Euro fans, MLS fans, women’s soccer fans, Hispanic fans of Central and South American soccer, USL fans, and youth soccer supporters – and the latter, ironically, rarely watches any form of professional soccer. Also, ironically, these separate groups are anxiously waiting for soccer to make it big in America.
Fox’s Sternberg says their job is to make MLS appealing to as big and broad an audience as possible, but with particular emphasis on men 18-49 and Hispanics. Above all, Sternberg is adamant about MLS competing in international tournaments and the importance of the international element in American soccer, a component taken for granted overseas.
“It puts a league more on the map in other countries,” said Sternberg, “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.”
In fact, the international attraction/friction might well be the marketing appeal that sets soccer apart from baseball, American football, and basketball. Isolated from other leagues and cultures by geography, this nation of immigrants still retains ties to the national identities of generations before them. The dimension of international competition has a seductive lure that lays claim on heritage in a blended society, and these ties could transcend conflicting league affiliations.
If, like FC Barca, European clubs considered investing in MLS clubs, branded them with their identity, supplied them with bench and academy players, the US soccer culture could more closely resemble the overseas atmosphere with traditional national rivalries. Although some detractors want to keep the MLS identity exclusively American, this isolationism eats away at the historical nature of this competition.
Sophisticated television network marketing might understand what the league needs before the league knows it, and Sternberg thinks MLS should kick it up a notch – more soccer specific stadiums, expanded rosters, and higher quality players on a different pay structure.
“I don’t know if the DP is the ultimate solution,” said Sternberg. “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 of five people who are experienced, skilled, and can really elevate you.”
Women pose new challenge
Sternberg notes that a new frontier is women, a demographic where the connection is largely participatory and has yet to embrace soccer as a spectator sport. Surprisingly (or not), the audience of the first WPS game “skewed a little bit more male, it wasn’t quite 78-22, but it was a majority male audience”noted Sternberg. “That’s not going to change, but we are going to try to get more women to sample the network as a whole.”
The first two weeks of WPS matches revealed a quality, attained from international scouting, that many MLS games don’t achieve. There’s also a social, slightly subversive association with WPS that reaches into the heart of the game and makes this league very attractive. FSC is broadcasting many of the matches and the market research gleaned will determine sponsors, future coverage, and like MLS – the direction of the league.