Has Soccer's Domestic Popularity Become an Impediment to Growth?
The history of soccer on U.S. television is relatively well-known. As recently as the 2002 World Cup, even the planet’s most popular sporting event wasn’t receiving a rights fee from a U.S. broadcaster. As we’ve all been recently reminded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, however, the country’s broadcasters are now paying more in rights fees than any other nation for the quadrennial mega-event across two languages (about $1 Billion for the ’18 & ’22 World Cup’s by Fox & Telemundo).
How times have changed.
The World Cup, however, is only part of the story. Major soccer leagues and tournaments have now been garnering significant rights fees from U.S. broadcasters as more and more of those media companies look to capitalize on the hard to reach young adult male demo that consumes live sporting events, and even more so over-indexes specific to soccer.
So how is this a bad thing?
Soccer’s continued fight is for the everyday U.S. sports fan to engage. The person that surfaces as a soccer fan every four years, and has become increasingly aware of, and interested in the EPL, Champions League, The Euros, etc. This type of fringe viewer is interested, but is unlikely to go out of his/her way to watch a match, as it needs to be served directly to them. Today marks the start of Copa America. In theory, the aforementioned viewer could very easily be engaged by a tournament featuring Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez, Alexi Sanchez and Edinson Cavani, all fighting tooth and nail for their country. The problem, however, is that very few Americans who fall within that category of fandom even knows what the tournament’s U.S. broadcaster (Bein Sports) is, let alone where to find it amongst their 500 channels.
This is by no means the fault of Bein Sports. There is a process to claim the rights for such a tournament, and they prevailed. Additionally, their expertise and analysis is at a minimum on-par with ESPN and Fox Sports. One would have to assume that the strategy behind the decision to outlay the necessary cash to secure these rights was based on the ability to capture the Hispanic audience via Bein Sports Espanol as well as to re-inforce Bein Sports as the authority in domestic soccer from an English language standpoint. Once again, fair play to them. A broadcaster sees value in paying a significant rights fee which they expect will be more than rewarded by the advertising dollars they’ll rake in. Capitalism at its finest.
Make no mistake, however, that this is to the detriment of the growth of the game. Without the promotional power of an ESPN constantly reminding viewers to tune in, and why it’s important to do so, this great tournament will largely be viewed by only the country’s most avid soccer supporters.
Additionally, this is not the only instance of this happening. One could make a very strong argument that the UEFA Champions League was negatively affected by the switch from ESPN to Fox. Not because of production quality or expertise, but because average American sports fans are creatures of habit. Is that fan more likely to stumble across a Champions League match on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon on ESPN or on Fox Sports 1?
It must also be noted there is very much a flipside to this phenomenon. Beginning later this summer, Fox Sports will begin broadcasting the German Bundesliga, which has historically been hidden on GolTV. This will enable casual U.S. soccer fans to experience yet another of the World’s best leagues on traditional cable TV, and will certainly be good for the growth of the sport.
With the explosion of popularity the game has seen over the last couple of decades, these competitions have become extremely valuable assets to broadcasters. Competition is always a good thing, both on the pitch and in boardroom pitches to win broadcast rights. ESPN can’t, nor should they be the sole broadcaster of every noteworthy soccer event. Along the way, however, there are going to be growing pains as viewers move along the life-cycle of soccer fandom. Slowly, the novices will turn to experts, and more and more competitions will become appointment TV as opposed to casual entertainment.