ESPN, FOX and Univisión are Betting Millions That You'll Keep Watching Soccer

Categories: Sports

Photo by Marco Torres
It was a Tuesday afternoon up at my radio station, and the United States' 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time had just ended, eliminating the American men's soccer team from the 2014 World Cup.

Depressed, I stood there staring at the television, slowly calculating how old I would be the next time I would get to watch a World Cup game, in 2018, when I heard a voice grumble behind me.

"Wondo, man."

I turned around, and it was my co-host, normally a self-proclaimed and proud "non-soccer watcher."

Quizzically, as if I were staring at an alien, I said, "Huh?"

"Wondo, man!" he frustratedly groused. "He missed that goal. If he makes that, we go to the quarterfinals!"

The "goal" my previously soccer-eschewing co-host was referring to was an open-net, possible game-winning opportunity late in regulation that America's Chris Wondolowski skied over the crossbar, and I'm virtually certain my neophyte soccer fan of a co-host was referring to him as "Wondo" because he had no idea how to pronounce "Wondolowski" (nor any idea 30 minutes earlier that "Wondo" even existed).

"Man," he frustratedly grumbled. "Making the quarterfinals would've been awesome...and the game would've been on a Saturday morning; we could've started drinking early!"

God bless America!

Indeed, beer and nationalism are a potent combination, and every four years, a profound love of country, competition and day drinking brings millions of Americans -together under the one-month umbrella of World Cup soccer.

The love is palpable, the numbers are undeniable.

The United States' June 22 opening-round game against Portugal was viewed by 24.7 million people in the United States (18.2 million on ESPN, 6.5 million on Univisión), a total that at the time trailed only the Super Bowl, the AFC and NFC conference title games, and the BCS title game in viewership.

That game was soon surpassed by the 2014 World Cup finals between Germany and Argentina, which drew 26.5 million viewers in the United States.

The World Cup boom is real.

However, as a soccer-watching nation, we've sat on the peak of these quadrennial soccer-interest spikes before, and when the confetti is all swept up and we've figuratively been given "last call," the question always remains the same:

Can America's obvious love for World Cup soccer translate into a mainstream love of MLS soccer?

For all the fits and starts soccer has historically had here in the United States, one thing is certain -- the sport has never been better equipped to compete on the American landscape than it is right now.

Its most potent weapon? An eight-year, $720 million contract that MLS and U.S. Soccer agreed to back in May with networks ESPN, FOX and Univisión that will provide unprecedented financial and scheduling -benefits that American soccer has never before seen.

Rob Stone covered the MLS for nearly two decades with ESPN, and he is now with FOX, and he says the biggest key to this new media rights deal is scheduling consistency.

"One of the biggest problems that the MLS has had is that the start times for the telecasts were different every week. There was no appointment viewing; we made fans work to find us," Stone says. "You absolutely can't do that when you're trying to grow a sport."

The "appointment" Stone refers to is now the crown jewel of the new television contract -- a Sunday evening doubleheader, which will be collaboratively promoted by ESPN and FOX with an early-evening game on ESPN2 followed by a night game on FOX Sports One.

How committed are all the parties -- ESPN, FOX and MLS -- to the success of this weekly destination night of soccer viewing? Stone says the networks have agreed to a level of cooperation never before seen in covering a professional sports league.

"There are a lot of leagues with multiple network partners, but none that have agreed to cross-promote the games the way ESPN and FOX will for the MLS," Stone says. "And I'm talking right down to the transition between games -- you'll have ESPN broadcasters directing viewers to switch directly to the FOX telecast for the second game. It's going to be really cool."

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I don't know about MLS. Until they stop signing old, past-their-prime European stars, they won't develop much talent. Also drop all the prep school soccer players and do what other teams do, which is take to the streets to find some talent.

Premier League on NBC has been alright, not too many complaints. the Premier League made the right decision to go with a big network because they get more exposure and potential viewers.

Compare that to La Liga, which decided to go with a cable-exclusive station because they are desperate for money (to funnel to Real Madrid and Barcelona, because got forbid any other team in Spain get a piece of TV revenues). 


@h_e_x Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson, Tim Cahill, Obafemi Martins, etc. are not washed up players. You may have had a point about 2 or 3 years ago, but you have not followed the league since then if you think every DP player signed today is "old, past their prime". I don't understand why people think you can just magically start an American soccer league with premier talent immediately in such a crowded sports market. Where would you find the ownership groups to immediately commit to building stadiums and spending billions on players with just a few million $ in TV deals (as it was when MLS started... games were on HDNet for goodness sakes). This was actually attempted before with NASL... and they imploded. You can't get too big too fast... in the medical world, that's called "cancer". MLS's growth has been slow, methodical, and crafted on purpose. Fans are gained one-by-one. The stadiums are not massive 70K+ seat mammoths (except for Seattle), they're 20K - 27K intimate venues. And that's for a reason. The league has gone from retraction of teams to a slow, but steady, incline in everything from ratings to quality to players to attendance. And, frankly, what you've just stated is the EXACT definition of a bandwagon fan.


@mitcham1 @h_e_x I'm not really a bandwagon fan because I'm not much of a fan of the American game that much. It is getting better and I want the league to become stronger, if for no other reason than to give the U.S. a fighting chance against international competition. Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to do good work with youth development, which has languished for the last decade or so as teams scouted academies and prep schools in search for something that was never there. 

I just don't want to sugar coat MLS. I don't think they could beat Argentine or Brazilian clubs, let alone Championship clubs in England. Kinsmann is trying to change the style of play in the U.S., which is a good thing and should go a long way to correct the persistent problem of lack of quality. Players here have fitness and not too much else, which never translates into titles. I think the MLS should forget about the Copa America, a competition that Mexican clubs don't even take all that seriously, and try to get into the Copa Libertadores, which is the top competition in the Western Hemisphere. That might attract better talen from south of the border and give U.S. players a better understanding of where the game is heading as a whole.


@h_e_x @mitcham1 The problem is you're mentioning leagues that have had a 50 - 75 year head start and didn't have their first attempt crash-and-burn in spectacular fashion. Of course they can't beat UEFA teams, or EPL clubs, etc... but neither can any other league started since 1994. MLS has only begun the maturation of their academy systems in the last 3 years. It takes time and true supporter of US Soccer should support their domestic league or we will just repeat Round of 16 World Cup exits for generations.

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