ESPN, FOX and Univisión are Betting Millions That You'll Keep Watching Soccer
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.
Photo by Marco Torres
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.
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."