By Paul Kennedy
It is almost impossible to go a day without finding live soccer somewhere on television. Most weekends offer dozens of matches available for viewing. The totality of live soccer programming over the course of the year surpasses that offered for any other sport on American television. It all makes for a soccer fan's dream but a huge challenge for any marketer trying to break through the clutter. Paying a steep price, NBC Sports has done just that with its coverage of the English Premier League, but MLS still struggles after many years on ESPN, and now NBC Sports. Here's our look at the top 10 soccer television stories of the year.
10.Fox Soccer Channel, an institution to American soccer fans since 1997, went off the air at the end of August, replaced by FXX, a new Fox entertainment network, on channels across the country. Before the proliferation of international soccer on rival networks, Fox Sports World served as the primary home for American soccer fans of the English Premier League. At various times, it also had the rights to such leagues as the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A. But the loss of the EPL rights to NBC Sports, beginning with the 2013-14 season, marked the beginning of the end for FSC.
9. The shuttering of Fox Soccer coincided with Fox's launch of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 as Fox Sports attempted to take the ESPN empire head on. Having lost the EPL rights to NBC Sports and the Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1 rights to beIN Sport, Fox Sports was left with only the UEFA Champions League (and English FA Cup) rights as its primary soccer properties until it takes over the FIFA rights that will include the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, beginning in 2015. Fox recently renewed its Champions League rights through the 2017-18 season and acquired the German Bundesliga rights, currently held by GolTV, beginning with the 2015-16 season.
8. Fox Soccer aired soccer studio shows, first Fox Soccer Report, more recently Fox Soccer News, both produced out of Canada. With Fox Soccer's demise, the show was no longer available to U.S. viewers. But no worries, viewers were soon able to watch not one but two soccer shows, ESPN FC on ESPN2 and Fox Soccer Daily on Fox Sports 1. Both shows generally air on weekday afternoons -- ESPN FC also has an hour-long Sunday night edition -- and feature a heavy dose of international soccer. But they both struggle with low viewerships. If you throw out middle-of-the-night programming, the three lowest viewerships for ESPN2 programming the week before Christmas were all ESPN FC shows. Episodes of Fox Soccer Daily drew as few as 22,000 viewers on FS1 and 6,000 on FS2 the same week. (On Monday, the website World Soccer Talk reported, citing sources, that Fox Soccer Daily won't air for the next 4-6 weeks as the program is being evaluated by Fox executives.)
7. As Fox is in a holding pattern until it takes over the FIFA contract in 2015 -- and airs the Women's World Cup from Canada -- it has experimented with its on-air talent. The big name it brought in was veteran play-by-play man Gus Johnson to call key Champions League and Gold Cup matches. Johnson is a divisive figure among American soccer fans -- loved by some, hated by a lot -- but his work at least during the Gold Cup with Eric Wynalda at his side was quite solid.
6.One of the television success stories of the year was UniMas, the former TeleFutura network. Univision has thrown much of its primary soccer programming on UniMas, and the network has attracted solid viewership figures for both Mexican national team and league matches and MLS games. Indeed, MLS Cup 2013 drew more viewers on UniMas (514,000) than on ESPN (505,000) for the first time. Those numbers were consistent with the trend during the 2013 regular season. Univision reported that the average viewers on UniMas' MLS regular-season broadcasts (223,000) topped those on ESPN2 (181,000).
5. Veteran sports media and marketing executive Gary Stevenson was named president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures, MLS's new media business unit. The former Pac-12 Networks president was charged with leading MLS's negotiation of new television deals to replace those with ESPN, NBC Sports and Univision that expire after the 2014 season. MLS Commissioner Don Garber told Soccer America in June that Stevenson was one of the most important hires the league has ever made, giving it "the firepower to really figure out how we can grow a very important part of what every league has to be strong in, which is the world of traditional media and digital media."
4. Interest in soccer is at an all-time high, as evidenced by the proliferation of soccer documentaries. The excellent MLS Insider (an MLS Business Ventures property)was launched in 2013, offering magazine-style segments on MLS stars young (Kekuta Manneh) and old (Thierry Henry) and topics as diverse as the Cascadia Cup and the Curse of Caricola. The shows aired to generally low audiences on NBCSN but fit in with the MLS strategy of pushing out content digitally on as many platforms as possible. (All 15 episodes are available here on YouTube.)
3. In what should be a harbinger of strong viewing figures for next summer's World Cup -- two group games will kick off from Brazil at 6 p.m. ET -- the U.S. men's national team averaged 1,494,000 viewers for six World Cup qualifiers on ESPN, more than five times the average of 269,000 viewers for seven MLS regular-season broadcasts on the same network. The overnight rating for the USA's match against Panama in the Gold Cup final on Fox was 1.7, the network's second-highest overnight rating ever for a soccer game and higher than the ratings for Major League Baseball games on Fox and ESPN the same July weekend.
2. To the surprise of no one, MLS ratings are the league's Achilles' heel. Sports Business Daily reported that the average viewership for regular-season matches dropped 29 percent on ESPN/ESPN2 and 8 percent on NBCSN (which had benefited in 2012 from unusually high viewerships due to lead-ins from its London Olympics coverage). The Portland-Real Salt Lake playoff game ranked 139th out of 139 programs of the week on ESPN. Is television everything? No. But low ratings mean low revenues -- or as comedian Drew Carey, the Sounders' co-owner, recently said, "The revenue is like a statistical error" -- and until that changes, MLS will remain at a huge disadvantage compared to the major leagues of the world when it comes to attracting and keeping talent.
1. No English-language network has invested as heavily in a non-FIFA media property as NBC has in the English Premier League on NBC, a rights buy reported to be $250 million over three years. As John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Sports Group, pointed out, the EPL is a sports property unlike any other NBC has ever had in that the season extends 10 months, from August to May. NBC Sports went all out with its pre-launch promotion of the EPL, and it has supported live broadcasts of every game with extensive pre-game and post-game coverage. It has paid off as NBC Sports has enjoyed strong ratings for matches that kick off mostly on weekend mornings or at midday during weekdays. (Last week's Manchester City-Liverpool and Arsenal-Chelsea and games rank second and fifth all-time, respectively, among the most-watched weekday EPL matches.)
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