Once upon a time not so long ago, it was very difficult to watch soccer in the United States on television. It’s a thought that seems almost foreign these days, considering the amount of footy we had at our disposal over the last few years.
Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, outside of the World Cup, getting to watch a professional match on television was as rare as false Raheem Sterling paternity claims. American broadcasters had historically shied away from airing soccer after the disastrous ratings provided by NASL. A slow-growing interest in MLS and the USMNT saw a few domestic matches showing in fleeting intervals. Until the late 90’s and early 2000’s, if you wanted to watch a European match, well let’s just hope you knew someone with satellite or pay-per-view. Even after surviving Y2K, the best we could expect was the odd Champions League match on ESPN and the occasional Premier League showing on your local Fox Sports provider. It wasn’t until 2005 that Fox
Sports World Soccer Channel started regularly showing Premiership and Serie A matches to a majority of the country’s cable channel subscribers.
Today, however, is a time of plenty. Up to six live seven live Premier League matches are aired a week between Fox Soccer, sister channel Fox Soccer Plus, not to mention the Champions and Europa Leagues. Satellite stalwarts GolTV along with newcomers BeIN Sport offer up the Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A. Telemundo, ESPN Deportes and Univision all provide loads of matches too. And that’s just the club game; the international broadcasts are a whole other list. Remember too that competition was fierce in the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup broadcasting rights, with Fox outbidding longtime holders ESPN with a sizable $450 million shell out.
And with this week’s news that NBC Universal have landed the US broadcasting rights to the Premier League for the next three seasons for $250 million — a cost worth more than three times the current contract owned by Fox — it really serves to underline just how far we’ve come with in just the last ten years.
The deal with NBC is groundbreaking in many ways beyond just its price tag. Though NBC Sports will be the “home” channel for the EPL, they’ve indicated they intend to show live matches simultaneously on their other network channels. Much like their Olympic coverage, their CNBC, MSNBC, USA and Bravo networks are all in play. NBCSN is also available in about twice as many households in the states as FSC, which means wider distribution — maybe that will make it easier to catch a match at a bar? Much like we’re currently accustomed, they intend to have pre- and post-match shows, as well as a nightly news show. And perhaps most intriguing was the announcement that they intend to show up 18-20 live matches per season on over-the-air NBC, meaning the masses will be exposed to top tier professional matches more than ever before.
All great news, right?
Well, yeah… I think so, at least. But as you’ve probably come to expect from me and — and my less than enthusiastic tone probably revealed — I do have some concerns about the move, too.
As the paragraphs above hopefully illustrate, it took us a really long time to end up with just one widely available, soccer-only channel in this country. Never mind two. Yet with the Premier League picking up shop and moving over to rival NBC Sports starting next season, Fox’s investment in soccer is looking a little shaky. Once the EPL’s departed, here’s what will make up their line-up:
- The FA Community Shield through 2017, which sounds cool until you remember it only one match per year.
- The FA Cup through 2018. This could be a marquee competition for them, but only if they choose to show more than just a few marquee matches. It’s two biggest downfalls: matches occur only every few weeks, and they grow far fewer in number the later into the season we go.
- One live Australian A-League match per week, which sounds cool until you realize it’s typically live in the middle of the night.
- Select home England men’s and u-21 national team friendlies through 2018. So maybe, what, 10 matches per year?
- Select matches from the USL Pro, PDL and W-Leagues, all of which tend to feature the production quality of equal quality to the play on display. I imagine if MLS struggles to draw television audiences, the US third and fourth divisions isn’t exactly going to be a boon to ratings.
- Up to three matches per week from NCAA men’s and women’s soccer. See above.
- UEFA Super Cup through 2014… oh nice, yet another single match per year.
- And we can’t forget their saving grace, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League through 2015. But even then, these matches occur only in bunches every few weeks or so, too.
So if you’re saying to yourself, “Wait, that sounds like a lot of content to me,” why is losing the Premier League a problem for Fox Soccer’s outlook?
First and foremost, the EPL is by and far away the most followed professional soccer league in the US. And with La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, the English Championship, the Brasileirão and Argentine Primera already spoken for by other networks for the foreseeable future, there really isn’t anything they can pick up to fill the gap. They could make moves to give some increased exposure to less heralded leagues out there, such as the Dutch Eredivisie, the Russian Premier League or the Portuguese Primeira Liga. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck with the irregularly scheduled roster of competitions in their current line up.
Speaking of that irregularity, that brings me to my second point. With no regularly scheduled league for them to showcase each weekend, will it really be possible to maintain any sort of tangible viewership in between the normally midweek matches of the European competitions and the FA Cup? I highly doubt it. FSC and FSP are already guilty of over playing old Champions League matches to fill the gaps in between live content and their few dedicated shows each week. Imagine what it will be like when they don’t have any live matches to play over the weekends. If we’re lucky, it won’t be more episodes of Dreamteam.
Add those two thoughts together, and it’s not crazy to hypothesize that Fox Soccer will not get the same amount of viewers they’re currently enjoying. Losing the Premier League audience means FSC/+ will probably see a sizable drop of sponsorship dollars, as the advertisers will follow the league with the most eyeballs on it every week. And without those sponsorship dollars flowing in, will Fox really want to continue investing in two soccer only channels? Would carriers even want to keep them in their line-ups? Even though they have the World Cup rights for 2018 and 2022, they could shuttle both of their soccer only properties and still have plenty of other channels on which they can show every match live. Losing one or both of those channels, even if NBC Sports does a marvelous job in the role, would be a blow to us as fans. Losing a legal outlet for watching matches is never a good thing.
Now, this is all really grim and doomsday scenario-ish. Maybe losing the EPL will serve as a wake-up call to Fox. Perhaps it will make them more inclined to put in a more competitive bid the next time around. Or they might aggressively chase other leagues as replacements, meaning we get more league coverage on cable then we have even today. This thing could go a lot of different ways.
Now, I’ve not made mention of all at my concerns over sports productions at NBC. Think tape delays during the Olympics (something NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus has denied they’ll do) combined with shoddy production, camera work (NHL coverage being a prime example) and a rapidly expanding sports portfolio that possibly won’t devote ample time to soccer (they’ve just acquired F1 Racing right’s too). I’m also worried about the Premier League possibly cannibalizing growth of MLS ratings, NBC Sports having scooped up their rights this year too. Or who they’ll bring in to commentate (please no Laondon Donovan, please no Eric Wynalda) or call matches (please just use the native announcers from Sky).
But again, none of this is written in stone. They’re nothing more than concerns. Competition is better, right? The more the merrier! We could end up in a place where we have not only more coverage, but better coverage as the networks jostle with one another to keep your attention. Capitalism at its finest!
Let’s just not forget that other side to capitalist competition, either. While some entities will benefit from and feed off of it, others won’t be able to compete and will fail. Some even choose not to put up a fight at all and will just close shop. That’s what scares me.
Whether Fox feels it has the patience to wait for a new marquee league to become available, or if they feel it’s worth the investment necessary to compete in this new world with increased competition? Those remain the very important and very unanswered questions.