The Collapse of ESPN’s Soccer Empire
The loss of Champions League rights for the United States is just the latest blow to ESPN’s once dominant position broadcasting Football in the United States. As we reported almost two weeks ago, FOX has wrestled the rights to the marque annual event in world club football away from ESPN.
In the late 1990s, ESPN and its family of networks showed MLS often twice a week (once weekly on ESPN2 and once weekly on either ESPN or ABC) while running a show, Extra Time that wrapped up the week’s MLS action. ESPN had Champions League rights, La Liga rights, and until the 98-99 season they showed the English Premier League.
When ESPN lost the Premier League rights to FOX, News Corp, the parent company of FOX aired a two hour wrap up show on Sunday nights on regional FSN affiliates. This show remains etched as a starting point for so many American based Premier League fans: why did ESPN not make an effort to produce a similar show on the properties it had the rights to, even if at odd times?
Much of the Premier League’s success in America which includes overtaking our own domestic league in popularity is due to FOX’s commitment to the product. This is a commitment ESPN has never demonstrated to MLS itself.
La Liga once on ESPN is now on GOL TV and COMNEBOL World Cup qualifying is now on Setanta. ESPN however does now scroll key international soccer scores on the bottom line ticker and seems to recognize the growth in the game’s popularity stateside. But much of that growth, originally fueled by ESPN itself is now owed to other networks.
ESPN’s coverage of the US National Team while consistent, has shifted heavily from ABC to ESPN 2 since the network acquired NBA rights in 2002. While the number of games aired have remained consistent, the quality of telecast has dropped to near amateurish levels as we will discuss below.
ESPN in the late 1990s and early part of this decade used talented commentators like Seamus Malin and Ty Keough who while airing some biases were well grounded in the world game. (Keough was often criticized for being jingoistic but upon reflection he knew CONCACAF well and his match analysis was far superior to what we have now). Now the network relies on a number of former US players, all with extreme biases and lack of world football understanding. Eric Wynalda who has been released by ESPN had little understanding of European Football and ridiculous bias towards any player or coach in MLS.
Wynalda among other things advocated Frank Yallop becoming the manager of the US National Team, and stated the US team was too heavily dependent on European based players and that more selections should come from MLS. When Wynalda was let go he was replaced by John Harkes whose commentating style is so bland and who misses so much of what goes on in the match it’s laughable. Alexi Lalas is now in the studio in place of Julie Foudy, whom I always found objective and somewhat refreshing.
Lalas stated over the Summer of 2007 that he believed the Houston Dynamo, then the reigning MLS Champions would be a mid table team in the Premier League. This statement is so ridiculous it does not merit further discussion. Additionally, Lalas makes colorful but often crazy statements in the studio. But truthfully, Lalas would be a better commentator than Harkes in the booth.
But both Harkes and Lalas are incredibly jingoistic, overaly supportive of the USSF and MLS and not well informed about players for CONCACAF nations outside the US. With the Univision family of networks also airing many US matches in HD, it’s very difficult to not be tempted to flip the channel to the Spanish language broadcast just to avoid the blabbering and hype on ESPN.
The amateurishness of MLS telecasts on ESPN’s family of networks coupled with a product that was less compelling than just about any other major world football league doomed MLS on Thursday nights. The ratings for re-runs of Poker and Bowling approached MLS ratings on the network despite being given a prime time slot. The ratings for the US National Team on the network continued to blow away MLS despite often times being on the less desirable Wednesday night, and ostensibly appealing to the same groups of fans.
ESPN thus made the decision this past off season to shift the majority of its MLS telecasts away from Thursday nights. They also shifted the MLS Cup, whose 0.6 rating on ABC last year was its lowest ever away from the over the air channel and onto cable. Truthfully ABC got unlucky with the MLS Cup: had the LA Galaxy, DC United or Houston Dynamo made the final the ratings would have remained respectable. But a Columbus Crew-NY Red Bulls match up appealed to few but the hard core MLS supporters.
ESPN and ABC does have the rights to FIFA events including the World Cup thanks to a deal with SUM (the marketing arm of MLS) through 2014. So ESPN’s loss of Champions League rights does not mean that the network is out of the world class soccer business just yet. But clearly, FOX is expanding its scope while ESPN’s is contracting.
The silver lining for ESPN is that their broadband product ESPN 360 continues to secure more and more soccer related properties. Perhaps ESPN’s formula for football coverage going forward is more Internet based than television based. FOX on the other hand seems committed to buying up as many properties as it can. A shift is occurring of seismic proportions regarding TV rights for football in the US.Will ESPN fight back? That remains to be seen.
Ironically enough, I appeared on an ESPN show yesterday: Listen to my appearance on the 3/30 edition of LA’s ESPN 710’s Soccer Show with Dave Denholm here. The topic of discussion was the US-El Salvador match from Saturday night.