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League unfazed by changing 'football' landscape
by Ridge Mahoney, August 7th, 2009 5:34PM

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There's big news from the world of football, as in American indoor, as well as football played across the pond, as in the English Premier League.

All of it affects American soccer and MLS, as does just about everything else in the modern maelstrom of programming and content and platforms and rights and upgrades and tiers and sub-licensing. At some point in recent history the crossover left the realm of an athlete's footwork and entered the terminology of content production across multiple platforms, along with cross-promotion of crossover programming, which of course requires cross-indexing by numerous cross-eyed chroniclers to see which and how many demographics it crosses.

What, possibly, does the demise of the Arena Football League have to do with MLS? Well, aside from its existence as a niche sport that in 22 years of niche-ness surpassed that of America's soccer league, it also drew TV ratings on ESPN and ESPN2 superior to those of MLS. Outside the myopic view of many American soccer fans, a truncated version of American football still attracted better television viewing figures than the majority of MLS games, even those featuring the slim sexiness of David Beckham.

Doubtful indeed is the likelihood that deprived indoor football fans will more readily click over to see how the Crew is handling the tricky confines of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, or that SportsCenter crew members splice and mash the highlights of a 2-2 shootout that mitigates somewhat the absence of yet another 63-59 barnburner. That some MLS telecasts feature expanded studio pre-game and halftime segments isn't a huge leap, but it's progress.

There is more football bound for the screens of ESPN2, however, if a deal under discussion reaches fruition as is being reported in the UK. Either through a sub-licensing deal with Fox Soccer Channel or a direct rights purchase, ESPN is on the verge of acquiring U.S. rights to a package of English Premier League matches that in the past few seasons had been carried by Setanta Sports, which is near dissolution due to dire financial problems.

ESPN would take over telecasts of Saturday early (kickoffs around noon local time) games and Monday night telecasts. FSC and Setanta would continue to air games and thus would also continue blanket coverage of EPL games available to U.S. fans on multiple channels.

Could this new presence on ESPN adversely affect MLS? Quite possibly, if ratings are good and highlights sneak into other programming as well as "SportsCenter," which is likely considering the network's substantial coverage of this summer's international friendlies as well as major competitions such as the 2008 European Championship.

On the other hand, if there's crossover coverage of highlights as well as cross-pollination of promotional spots, featuring MLS snippets on international coverage and vice versa, the benefits could be mutual. Spots run during a Saturday EPL telecast could remind viewers of the MLS game to be played later that day, and a quick blurb of what happened in the EPL earlier that day wouldn't be out of place during halftime of an MLS telecast, which sometimes include studio segments emanating from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., covering sports news.

Some cross-promotion had been produced on Champions' League coverage before ESPN lost those rights to FSC, but clearly, the fans who eagerly devour both products are probably fewer than those who prefer one to the other.

Because no fans are more parochial and disdainful of other leagues than those devotees of the EPL, any knock-on effect of viewership for MLS games will probably be miniscule, at best. And ratings for ESPN2 telecasts of EPL matches played on Saturday, rather than the afternoon-weekday time slots for Champions' League matches, could be very strong.

When ESPN bought up Soccernet a few years ago, surely executives anticipated one day adding a major European league to its U.S. programming menu. No doubt the cross-promotion will skyrocket once the deal is consummated.

For fans, a popular league televised regularly on the dominant domestic sports network is a major plus. In some ways, the EPL telecasts on ESPN2 will compete with MLS, but the league has already shown its commitment to market and promote international games through its teams and a subsidiary, Soccer United Marketing.

Co-existence with other soccer properties is one part of the game MLS seems to have figured out, as painful as it is to see massive crowds attend, and TV deals cut for, games beyond its purview.

 



0 comments
  1. Jacob Wang
    commented on: August 7, 2009 at 7:21 p.m.
    Hopefully, the MLS will avoid the same fate as Argentina's top league, whose fall (their spring) season, due to begin next Friday, is in danger of not happening.

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