For those that have followed TSG since the inception, there are two dispositions that we believe regularly resound from this publication.
First, we tend to wander slightly left of the neutral line to optimism over pessimism.
Second, we don’t often harangue on or put down other sites. Just like you can be an uber-fan or a passive fan, everyone has their right to their voice.
Why do we offer these qualifications now? Because were about to challenge some of ESPN’s growth strategy here in just a minute.
Let’s lead off with a statement we’ve made before on soccer broadcasting in the United States:
“The single biggest entity that can have an impact on soccer viewership growth and American soccer legitimacy in the United States is ESPN. It is not ESPN’s responsibility to make it happen, but they do have the ability.”
The growth of soccer as well all know in the United States will likely not come from a stratospheric improvement in quality of MLS or from the against-odds chance that the USMNT finds themselves in a World Cup final. The latter has the odds stacked against it heavily and the former’s trajectory will not happen fast enough.
No, soccer growth, will be or could be greatly helped along by and from the continued, steady, educated and qualitative coverage by the Worldwide Leader (“isn’t that really ABC Sports…you know agony of defeat ski jump and all”) reporting on, marketing, and promoting all leagues. Not just any network, but the main and leading network that aggregates all sporting data and commands the highest range of sports fan.
There is a saying in the concert industry that sort of goes like this, “I know that the super fans of <insert artist name “Bruce Springsteen,” “Lady Gaga,” “Foo Fighters,” etc.> are going to go to the concert, what I need to do is introduce <artist name> to new fans to go to the concert.”
Well ESPN can do the same by taking fans of the NFL, the NBA and introducing them in a deep fashion to a new sport.
In fact, ESPN is currently doing just that…and that new sport is…..bowling!
That’s right. I learned this past month that Rob Stone is the combo MLS-PBA announcer for ESPN when he spent 80% of his recent podcast with Bill Simmons talking about bowling and the other 20% talking about some guy that Simmons called “HEN-ree.” But I digress.
First, I’m not going to outright condemn the strategy to turn Bowling (we’ll capitalize it through this piece) into the next Poker. For those that don’t know, ESPN nearly all by itself put Poker on the Neilsen ratings map and reaped a financial windfall from it.
There are some similar parallels in coverage to Poker that make it a lay-up for ESPN: Player profiles on unsaturated players, low production cost (“Here focus this camera on this alley for 2 hours; their focus that camera on that table for 195th World Series of….Poker.”), and, most importantly, an ability to enter any time during the telecast and immediately recognize the score and the stakes.
This last one is important because it means it is grabs the rather agnostic sports man with the drama of the moment, not the actual technical play.
Okay, so how has Bowling done for ESPN?
(Interjection, the NFL is the equivalent to ratings what Michael Phelps is to gold medals.)
Let’s take a look at what went down a few Sundays ago on ESPN.
There was the first female winner, Kelly Kulick, in the history of the PBA.
Strike! A 1.8 rating for ESPN. How does that compare to some other notable competitions, sports and shows?
Vikings-Saints Playoff Game: 30.7 (wow)
Typical NFL game: 14.0 – 20.0
Episode of Desperate Housewives: 4.4
Lakers v. Celtics (January 31st): 4.4
Typical NBA game this year: 1.8
Typical MLB game: 1.6
MLS game: .2 – .5 rating
And to just jog the memory, that much hyped first morning broadcast of the EPL, Hull City-Chelsea, on ESPN to kick off coverage this past summer?
Now to be fair, there are varying days and times for these games, but that is really the only major discount.
In essence you’re telling me–if I’m ESPN–that I can potentially get the same viewership with the PBA as the NBA or MLB at a fraction of the production cost. Done and done.
Add in the fact that the NFL and NBA have their own networks now and are increasingly staffing them up (adding leverage and dollars to their ESPN rights negotiations). Triple done.
One potential problem here.
ESPN….are you damaging the overall product?
First, we’ll need to change your call sign to “ERSPN”…as in the Entertainment, Recreation, and Sports Programming Network.
That’s not a put down of Bowling, darts or poker, nor do we intend to spark the sports vs. recreation debate.
It digs deeper than that. If ESPN is building up an expertise in largely static, conversation-focused sports, the focus will be on the type of coverage and advertisers that are needed for those recreations.
Well then, how long is ESPN the leader, and more importantly, expert in covering fast-paced team-oriented action? Sure they are trying out 3D broadcasts of soccer, but that’s largely a gimmick. Can they afford to not focus all their attention on improving qualitative coverage?
How much will advertisers that crave the smash-mouth product of the NFL cross over large media buys to the PBA?
Getting back to that product, there’s a recent corollary here.
NBC, beyond the Conan affair, is a shell of the media powerhouse that it once was.
Beyond GE purchasing NBC an attempting to run it like a turbine conglomerate, the programming and consequently the product began suffering at a certain moment in time.
That moment? When NBC decided to stop developing cutting edge dramas and sitcoms in favor of cheaper reality TV. They had Fox Network envy as Murdoch’s reality shows proliferated and were highly profitable.
See a parallel here? We do. As the peacock network migrated their programming selections to “cheaper” (production-wise and arguably product-wise) they lost their audience and their leadership position as the prime time TV leader.
ESPN is doing some phenomenal stuff to get soccer going like ESPN360.com and like hiring Martin Tyler for 2010, but they should eschew the short term ratings boosts from less dynamic sports like bowling in favor of making increased investment in soccer.
One thing, and no disrespect to the commenter, is bring in a little more broadcasting force ahead of Tommy Smyth.
While Smyth is an excellent commenter his consistent pattern of relating the game to stars of 1970s and 1980s (at the latest) is lost on the generation that you are trying to gain for the coming years, ESPN.
Concluding, ESPN is doing a ton on and with soccer already, but should it do more on the domestic game and eschew the quick profits of less dynamic fare like bowling?