Must See: Watching Soccer In America

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By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 3, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Consider the state of the American soccer fan. Easy access to the world's schedules of club soccer on channels most people have. Game after game calling for attention, and every weekend someone pointing out a total number that's almost always more than 50. Some would argue the more the better, but when does 'must' see' turns into just another game on the schedule?

To some extent, it's an American invention. Though there have been times where the right broadcaster with the right promotion has made our English friends care about La Liga and Serie A, it's normally not for very long. There's a reason hockey fans in North America aren't even passively interested in the Russian League, baseball fans aren't wondering why there's not more coverage of Japanese baseball, and basketball fans aren't obsessing over FIBA's European tournament. There's more to it than American exclusivism and the idea that they wouldn't bother watching anything but the best league in the world.

Sports have an attention span. It's why historically there wasn't much of an overlap between professional team sports in North America. Baseball cleared the stage before football really got started, and the trophy was awarded before the arena sports got serious. As sports promotions go, it was the pragmatic choice. It saved sports from direct comparisons, choosing one over the other multiple times a season. Even the arena sports had a built-in break. In the era of one arena per city, it was impossible to play at the same time.

Now we get calendar creep across sports, making the old push for a spring professional football league almost antiquated in concept. Though historically February was a lackluster month for pro sports, now the first week is home to the Super Bowl and even in its slight decline NASCAR has turned Daytona into a mainstream event. There's always something, and there's usually enough of an audience to attract coverage outside of the participating markets. True national television availability whether over-air or on cable isn't a distinction. Instead, it's an expectation.

So where does this leave soccer, a sport with so many games available every week that even the mad for it American fan has no choice but to pick and choose. It's that glut of coverage that needs to be considered. It doesn't exist in the major soccer countries in Europe. Those of us with British friends have probably experienced the look of mild shock when you explain just how many games are on US TV. We still get the occasional email asking us if the channels we list in the daily TV guide are easily available or obscure stuff no one really gets.

Choices have to be made, clubs, leagues, and competitions prioritized. That's where the new fan can feel adrift. Champions League is a given, but what about Europa? Do people really watch La Liga games when the two big clubs aren't involved? Is Serie A a draw in the US? The expectation is everyone is interested in the Premier League, but what about the Bundesliga? Why is there no agreed upon offseason when nothing is going on?

All of those are good questions and none of them apply to any other sport in the USA. Into that mix, Major League Soccer drops its ever-changing schedule. Again, in a move that's unique among North American professional sports it's pro soccer taking up more of the calendar than anyone else. NASCAR is the only comparison, with no events in December and January, but that's a one venue per week sport.

MLS is programming as many as nine games a weekend. That's not the 16 games the National Football League puts on, but the NFL only runs for half a year and 15 of those games are usually on the same day. Again, the level of attention professional soccer asks for in the North American marketplace is unique. Do we need to add in the summer live event market, where those elite European clubs take to the road for a few games to connect with the North American fans?

That's seldom true in North American professional soccer. The world of North American pro soccer doesn't stop simply because Barca and Milan are tied 0-0 going into the second-leg of their Champions League quarterfinal series. Europe does, and for good reason.

Stateside, it's a decidedly mixed set of many messages, with even the big club games not really pushing the rest from the stage. No pro sports promoter would make that decision. It's simply not business appropriate, the same way a television network doesn't run new programming when another network has a major event. The stage is ceded and the content isn't wasted. There's always another week, space on the schedule, and a better opportunity.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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7 Responses to Must See: Watching Soccer In America

  1. Sturgis07 says:

    There was a time when I would have argued the more the better, but I think there’s a need for curated coverage. I understand why my friends tune me out if I start in on something they consider obscure. Most of them don’t follow entire leagues here. It’s their team and whoever the network builds up on a game of the week or NBA on TNT. I think that’s what soccer is lacking. Other than the national team games, Premier League on Fox, and the Champions League final also on Fox, there’s no main focus. I think this is why MLS is on NBC, but if I’m being honest I think they’re overreaching.

  2. ‘Curated’ is a popular word on the internet right now and for good reason. I think you’re right to use it here. We don’t see the major US leagues putting as many games as possible on regular networks. You can get them, but it requires buying something extra. They also are able to highlight games in prestige time slots. That doesn’t exist for soccer. Even when a network cooperates there’s always something on somewhere else. It’s a sport competing with itself in a unique way. Some would sub in ‘absurd’ for ‘unique.’ Thanks for the comment.

  3. Eric says:

    Wait until ratings come directly from the boxes attached to televisions.

  4. Puxa Sporting says:

    “…my friends tune me out if I start in on something they consider obscure…”

    Thanks for helping my marriage. I now know the reason for the obscure look on my wife’s face when my lips are moving.

  5. Ryan says:

    Considering the expected limited reach of Al Jazeera Sports network, this more focused version of the sport of soccer will be more clear. Premier League remains the constant, along with MLS (albeit changing networks this year). As a passionate soccer fan I have moved from frustrated that there are too many choices, and lack “connections” to European and South American leagues. Now I’m just dissapointed that the future is unclear. Thanks for the article.

  6. Very good points Ryan. Thanks.

  7. That’s a concern for every television property, and one would think there would be enough push back from the networks to not want the public really knowing what their shows draw. Sort of like websites, no one really wants to know exactly what they draw. It’s much more palatable to talk in broad numbers that might not hold up to scrutiny.