By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 19, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Fox, the national broadcast network that counts iconic properties like The Simpsons and the National Football League among its assets, blazed a new trail by airing a live English Premier League soccer match on Sunday. Soccer getting the full televised sports treatment on a network that isn’t an opt-in premium purchase, but a basic part of most Americans’ television rotation, cannot be overstated as a step forward for soccer in the United States. The pre-game coverage was in-depth, well-produced, and included two knowledgeable American voices alongside a celebrity guest. From the broadest perspective, Fox did soccer in America a favor.
Soccer is now on broadcast TV outside of the once-every-four-years run of the World Cup. That’s something old-timers view with some amazement, considering the state of broadcast soccer just a short generation ago, but it’s a part of the natural progression.
Despite the relatively low rating, a 0.9 (in part thanks to the time of day, a few major market Fox affiliates demurring and the newness of the event for so many potential viewers) there’s no reason to think Fox will be scared off from increasing their commitment to the Premier League. Gird yourself or throw a party, whichever your inclination happens to be.
From an American soccer perspective, Fox’s decision to air Premier League games on their flagship network is both exciting and maddening. Remember: Fox is out of the Major League Soccer business for the time being, having lost out on a new contract with the League to NBC Sports.
What’s good on one hand - that MLS will get the full treatment from a network with the potential to widen its fan base, and took less money for that reason - is bad on the other. Fox also scored the World Cup rights for 2018 and 2022. So while MLS is gaining a new partner in NBC, it’s losing out on a relationship with the World Cup rights holder after 2014.
Pertinent questions hang in the air regards to how the lack of top-flight American soccer on any Fox network will affect MLS in the near future. That was true before Fox debuted a foreign league on (truly) national television, but is even more pressing now that they’ve chosen to give English soccer the star treatment.
Major League Soccer might not suffer in the end. Success for the English game on American television, if it’s coming on a network, doesn’t necessarily mean MLS can’t make its own mark elsewhere. America’s soccer-consuming public is already a divided entity, but new fans discovering the sport through Fox broadcasts aren’t necessarily going to avoid MLS as a rule.
The problem MLS faces turning soccer fans into MLS fans doesn’t really change, even if the pool of EPL fans expands. MLS will get its own shot on network TV thanks to the NBC deal, after all, and what they do with it or how successful they are has little to do with Fox beaming the Prem across the Atlantic on a Sunday morning.
Many Americans make time for the European game, whenever and wherever the broadcasts appear. Those are the fans Fox is hoping to attract with their flagship broadcasts, in addition to whatever new audience they think they can create. It’s a lost opportunity for MLS that those fans will not see promos for their local league, but it should not be an excuse for failing on television. There was very little chance Fox was ever going to put MLS on their main outlet, and there's a question for the effectiveness of any MLS cross-promotion or even EPL for that matter. You didn't see any push for Fox Soccer's schedule of games, instead they focused on the NFL playoff game later that day.
While ESPN tethers the European and American games together thanks to the English and MLS rights they hold, Fox now assumes the leading role as purveyor of the foreign game and only the foreign game. On the face, further separation of European and American soccer is a bad thing, splitting a market that is already fragmented along those lines. At least soccer fans watching earlier-in-the-day English game on Fox Soccer prior to the end of that network's MLS involvement were made aware of the American version’s existence. Now, watching Fox or Fox Soccer comes with no such reminder.
But there’s reason to see this TV split as a positive. ESPN remains ESPN, a behemoth of a network slurping up competition and handing out crumbs of airtime to sports that don’t rate in the nation’s Big Three. MLS is already there, and appears to be in no real danger of losing their place in line.
The NBC Sports Network, however, needs MLS more than ESPN or even Fox Soccer ever did. NBC is building from the ground up, cannot afford to gloss over any properties the way ESPN sometimes does, and, judging by early indications, is willing to spend more on the production than Fox Soccer.
Signing a deal with NBC, even for for less money than Fox Soccer offered, potentially put the League on more equal footing with that network’s other properties. As long as MLS shared a home with the world’s biggest and richest league, it would pale in comparison. Especially when the corporation in charge of that home gives the English game, not the American, the spotlight on the major network.
Arsenal-Manchester United on Fox, with all the requisite pomp and circumstance standard for a top class sports broadcast, was a big deal for soccer’s place in mainstream American television. Unfortunately for MLS, American soccer’s grip on the coattails of the English Premier League is tenuous at best, nonexistent at worse. More than being a victory for “Soccer” capital “s”, the Fox broadcast brought into better focus that Major League Soccer’s television fortunes will be separate and distinct.
MLS on the NBC Sports Network will be an American sport among other American sports on an outlet working to carve out a niche, with all the earnestness that implies. Even if that turns out not to necessarily be better than being second class citizen on a soccer-only network, it’s a new approach to a problem the League has yet to solve.
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