Soccer's biggest television stories of 2017

No story was bigger in American soccer in 2017 than the U.S. national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and its impact will certainly be felt on television.

1. USA fails to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Fox Sports' first men's World Cup was always going to be a challenge with kickoff times as early as 7 a.m. ET -- ESPN benefited greatly in 2014 from Brazil's favorable time zones -- but the USA's shocking failure to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1986 is a disaster for the network, which holds the FIFA rights through the 2026 World Cup.

Thanks to ESPN's promotion of the tournament, the World Cup has become an Olympic-style event, drawing millions of casual American viewers every four years, but many of them exclusively tune in to USA's matches. An early indicator of the problem at hand: FS1's viewership for the final draw from Moscow was a fraction of what ESPN2 registered four years earlier from Brazil.

Without the USA in the tournament, Bloomberg reported that Fox Sports could lose tens of millions of dollars on decreased ad sales. And soccer more generally will lose the opportunity to sell itself to new fans, which will have repercussions down the road for MLS, which will have to renegotiate a new television deal before the next World Cup in Qatar in late 2022.


Fox Sports' up-front party in late September: Photo courtesy of Fox Sports.

2. Turner Sports snatches away Champions League from Fox Sports.

Fox Sports got more bad news early in late February when it lost U.S. media rights to the UEFA Champions League to Turner Sports and Univision, starting in 2018-19.

Turner, whose last men's soccer coverage was its much-criticized coverage (with commercial breaks) of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, will pay more than $60 million a year over the three-year deal. Univision agreed to pay around $35 million per year for the Spanish-language rights.

3. Soccer's champions at ESPN and Fox Sports depart.

John Skipper shocked the sports world when he suddenly stepped down as president of ESPN on Dec. 18, citing a substance abuse issue. He had championed soccer at the network, overseeing its World Cup coverage in 2006, 2010 and 2014 when the average viewership almost doubled and backing MLS when few gave it a chance.

Skipper's departure came also three months after David Nathanson announced that after 18 years he was leaving Fox Sports, where he had been head of business operations. Behind the scenes, Nathanson was one of the most powerful people in American soccer, first heading Fox Soccer and then securing World Cup rights for Fox Sports.

4. MLS ratings climb modestly, bucking sports trend.


The numbers are still a fraction of what the major American sports leagues draw, but MLS's average regular-season viewerships increased on Univision and UniMas (265,000) and FS1 (236,000) and were down only slightly on ESPN and ESPN2 (272,000) in 2017.

Including MLS Cup, the eight MLS playoffs on ESPN averaged 408,000 viewers, a 64 percent increase compared to 2016 (with no MLS Cup) and 27 percent ahead of the 2015 MLS playoffs (when the final was on ESPN).

That bucks the trend of big drops by other leagues, most notably the NFL's regular-season ratings in 2016 and 2017.


MLS Cup 2017: Photo courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC.

5. Liga MX still dominates league viewership.

As far as league soccer goes, the king of American television, though, remains Mexico's Liga MX on the Univision Deportes networks.

Univision drew audiences of 2.3 million and 2.6 million for the two legs of the Clasico Regio -- Tigres vs. Monterrey -- in the Apertura final, giving Univision Deportes networks 19 out of 20 top-rated club matches on U.S. television in 2017, regardless of language.

6. NWSL gains destination viewing -- and new commercial partner.

The NWSL is already the first U.S. women's pro league to survive more than three years, but perhaps the greatest sign of its long-term stability was the deal the league signed with A+E Networks before the start of the 2017 season.

Not only did Lifetime carry a Game of the Week -- by contrast, FS1 only carried three regular-season games in 2015 and 2016 -- but A+E has an interest in the commercial success of the NWSL, operating NWSL Media in a joint venture with the league.

Evan Silverman, the executive vice president of Digital Media at A+E responsible for managing NWSL Media, told Soccer America the media deal "opens up doors to sponsors in ways that the league wasn't able to do previously."


Jenn Hildreth and Aly Wagner: Photo courtesy of Lifetime.

7. EPL viewerships drop for first time on NBC Sports.

After three years of growth, NBC Sports experienced for the first time a drop in the average viewership of its award-winning coverage of the English Premier League primarily on NBC and NBCSN, down to 420,000 viewers a game in 2016-17 from 514,000 in 2016-17 when the EPL outdrew the NHL on NBC and NBCSN.

In a bid to help monetize the $1 billion it will pay over six years for the renewal of its deal with the EPL, NBC Sports launched Premier League Pass. So instead of watching all games unavailable on NBC or one of its cable networks for free on Premier League Extra Time, fans now pay $49.99 for spillover coverage on the NBC Sports Gold subscription paywall.

1 comment about "Soccer's biggest television stories of 2017".
  1. R2 Dad, December 28, 2017 at 4:04 p.m.

    $50 for ten months of Premier League coverage isn't a terrible price, though not sure what spillover coverage omits.

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