“Okay, I Get It ESPN, But….”

For those that have followed TSG since the inception, there are two dispositions that we believe regularly resound from this publication.

ESPN needs to put it's stamp on soccer in America....

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!

80% Bowling, 20% Soccer....

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.

Kulick, a ratings bonanza

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?

Hull-Chelsea: A ratings discount...

A .2.

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.

The peacock network is not as shiny as it once was....

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.

Not your best foot forward...

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?

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19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/02/17 at 12:49 AM

    Noted on Twitter:
    “@shinguardian well in the uk they are focused on darts in HD, and their soccer is still pretty good! Lol”

    TSG reply: “Good point, it’s not and either or…however it’s a question of what the aim of the product is overall.”

    Reply

  2. Posted by Mark T on 2010/02/17 at 1:29 AM

    Matthew, this seems to be your point….hopefully I am right.

    “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.”

    ESPN seems to have a good understanding of the American sports public needs as the have a track record of creating commercial success with the likes of X-Games and Bass Fishing along with the aforementioned Poker and Soccer.

    Why wouldn’t they just continue to elevate cheaply produced sports that make money instead of prop up soccer in America like the NBA props up the WNBA?

    As ESPN is a global company, they are investing heavily in soccer. The WC is the biggest investment they made in a single sporting event to date. However, they feel zero obligation to invest in American soccer and developing viewership (not fans) until the potential financial return warrants it.

    On another notes, and someone may have an easy answer here, but is soccer hampered in the US market from a broadcasting standpoint by the lack of television timeouts.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/02/17 at 1:50 AM

      Dear TSG brother…I asked you to help edit the piece…not succintly make my point in less words in the comment section. Where’s the love?! :>

      Good summation of my argument…and my apologies to our audience for meandering a bit…

      On your television timeout point, I’ve been thinking about that one a lot — I don’t necessarily think that it’s just the commercial revenue that is hampered by the lack of interruption in soccer.

      I think a key missing point is the ability for the broadcasters to educate the audience — a la John Madden with the telestrator — in the middle of the game… Telemundo’s broadcasts do this (and give up some live game shots) and it seems to help in my opinion.

      Reply

    • Mark – I concede your point that ESPN is pretty shrewd when it comes to understanding the American sports public and does have a long track record of success. However, I disagree that ESPN would be “propping up” soccer in the same vein that the NBA props up the WNBA. Your point about ESPN continuing their model of cheaply produced sports that make money is exactly the reason why ESPN should get into soccer now. Sure the WC cost them a pretty penny, and the EPL and La Liga rights may not be the cheapest around, but MLS isn’t that expensive and really how much do a few commercials cost to pimp some of the games? Also, the EPL and La Liga rights aren’t cheap, but getting them now seems like it would build up some credibility for acquiring them in the future. Same with MLS, ESPN getting in on the ground floor and doing some (more than they currently do) promotion of the league and players might help them in negotiations in the future.

      Since ESPN would currently prefer to show Jump Roping competitions, Lacrosse Season Previews, Bowling, Poker, Fishing, Hunting, Jazzercise Cardio workouts, and more instead of soccer, I’ve got to think that when MLS starts auctioning off its rights (for actual dollars instead of play money) that they’ll look at ESPN’s bid and FSC’s bid and go with the one that not only brings in a good amount of money but is also focused on attempting to drum up viewership.

      If it’s MLS’s, and not ESPN’s, job to improve the on-field quality, then it’s ESPN’s, and not MLS’s, job to give the broadcasts the appropriate hype, hoopla, and build-up in order to entice new viewers. And, if they want to do it on the cheap, they should forgo “proven” on-air talent and hire some young kids out of college or pick them off the interwebs, we all know more than John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa anyway. Well maybe not, but at least we could always break out the “boom goes the dynamite” line.

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/02/17 at 7:25 AM

        Nick — good point in the final paragraph there — and similar to my Tommy Smyth comment. If you give fans “more of the same” than you are really doing soccer an injustice, broadcast-wise.

        Reply

  3. Posted by Pino on 2010/02/17 at 7:54 AM

    BTW i have one of those neilsen boxes in my house. So ill be taking any requests to skew tv ratings. but seriously we all try to keep fsc on as often as possible. And i hate NBC what they have done to the olympics is shameful.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Sam on 2010/02/17 at 8:44 AM

    If ESPN had Saturday/Sunday NFL rights it would make soccer more profitable. Due to the time difference on the east coast I get to watch soccer all morning on weekends with a gradual transition to NFL or college football. That is pretty much the greatest time of year.

    Selling the transition is where it’s at, although nationally it could be difficult. Westcoast-wise a 9:00 AM game here would be at six in the morning over there. There’s a distinct reason why most major sporting events in the US do not start at six in the morning on weekends. This makes the draw of anyone but devoted fans a little more difficult. No one wants to make the decision between getting into a foreign and unfamiliar sport at the expense of not being able to sleep in on weekends.

    Also, the best champions league games always happen when I’m at work. Replays or TIVO’d games have their own problems with viewership and advertisers respectively.

    This leaves the ball in MLS’ court to do two things. Generate ticket revenue and secure primetime ratings.

    A long run by MLSers in the USMNT at the World Cup could do that, however with talent escaping the league as soon as it pops up the problem gets a little more stretched.

    I think it’s just going to take time and unforced growth of the league to get to where that needs to be.

    It would be nice to have the MLS get to twenty teams, abandon the salary cap, abandon the play off system and starts promotion and relegation with the USL, then there will be a definite jump in in support, with free market capitalism essentially deciding which teams will be successful.

    It’s just a matter of time for some of that stuff to happen, until it does, yeah, I suppose a few more commercials or bits emphasizing rivalries and new players coming through the league would be nice.

    Reply

    • Excellent points, I think the free market sentiment will make current soccer fans happy. I don’t know that it would generate much interest from the established sports in this country. Also, promotion/relegation is something that will take quite a bit of time to catch on this country, even though I agree it would bump up the intensity of the league and the matches.

      Dumping the playoffs is something that I understand the viewpoint of, but I don’t think it needs to be done in order to make soccer more successful here. Similar to the Mexican League, it’s just part of the beast on this side of the pond…

      Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/02/17 at 7:07 PM

      @Sam — welcome to TSG.

      I think the second piece of soccer growth (which I’m sure TSG will follow-up with an article on) is advertising.

      ESPN can provide the audience and the eyeballs, but its needs advertisers, beyond those historically focused on the Hispanic market, to commit to the product.

      In my opinion, this is where Nike and Adidas need to up the ante as they’ll be a direct correlation to selling product.

      Thanks for contributing.

      Reply

  5. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/02/17 at 10:09 AM

    If I can take you back to USA94, where the organisers wanted to increase the width of the goal by a foot either side… that was ridiculous and shows how the game was viwed in this country. Thank goodness that football in American has evolved. But there is still more to do.

    I also think quality half time and full time analysis is missing. When I watch with my US friends, I hear the general comments how ‘soccer is boring’. But I feel that if there was education their opinion would probably change. Yes, sometimes a 4-4 end to end game is exciting to watch, but let’s face it, those games are rare. You watch a game that is 0-0 and automatically, people are turned off, but they don’t realise that there is just as much art to defending as there is to attacking.

    The point I am trying to make is that I feel that Bobby MaMahon et al state the bleeding obvious.

    The other point I think that might help, as Sam mentioned, is pay the players more and encourage them to stay in the MLS, and to attract better players so the ‘product’ becomes better. At present, if this were another industry, you’d call it “brain drain”.. I’m not saying get a washed up 37 year old, but there is a rumour that Raul might be coming to the MLS. Yeah he is past his peak, but he is still only 32. The star player past his peak is not a solution for the long term, but might help get bums on seats in the short term. And people may just realise that the MLS is worth watching and supporting.

    The MLS might not be able to compete with the major European leagues head to head, but they cut increase their share of the domestic football audience.

    Reply

    • Education is the key, think about all the baseball fans who love seeing a 1-0 pitcher’s dual or a no-hitter which is similar to a 0-0 draw that has good saves. There are nuances to every sport that you have to appreciate as a fan in order to sit through all games, not just the exciting ones, and most Americans who aren’t fans of the beautiful game don’t understand those nuances. They think soccer is the bastard child of kickball and throwball; “Anyone can just kick a ball and run around after it…” Only those who’ve played or become a fan to the point of understanding the nuances really get how difficult it is to play this game.

      My biggest issue with all of the soccer/football haters in this country is that they claim that the sport is boring, when all sports have issues that make them boring from time to time, if not most of the time. I can’t stand to watch the NBA because it’s 10 men playing a game that often-times ends up being 1v1. Hockey during the regular season bores me to a point that I’ll only watch the playoffs. The NFL and College Throwball has so many commercials and stoppages that one can take a 2 hour nap and not miss much.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/02/17 at 3:57 PM

        It is funny you say that because the same people are the one’s waxing over a great sack on the QB in NFL, but fail to appreciate a brilliantly timed tackle or a centre back staying on his feet and marshalling a forward towards the corner flag in football.

        The other opportunity for football is to target those families that have been priced out of the traditional US sports – the ones who cannot afford to pony up $200 plus parking and food for one game…

        Reply

    • One more point about your education comment. It’s extremely tough to find someone who can provide the thoughtful punditry in layman’s terms. We hate watching those commentators who dumb it down to the point that even mini-van driving soccer mom’s are wondering why they’re oversimiplifying everything; but if you put the two guys who are usually seen during halftime of the games on Setanta it’ll be over most people’s heads.

      Instead of the broadcasts being in different languages, maybe we need to come up with a remote control button that allows you to switch from the Martin Tyler’s of the world to someone explaining what shooting with your instep means, and all of the various levels in-between.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Freegle on 2010/02/17 at 11:10 AM

    It’s an impossible situation because it comes down to the “chicken or the egg” corallary. Does the investment come first and the viewership will follow? Or, should we prove there is viewership before we make the investment.

    If ESPN pumps investment into its “soccer” coverage, they are taking a relatively big risk by spending money on an unproven commodity (in this country). It is much easier for them to pay for something with an established audience (a la Monday Night Football) and languish in the profits. So, I can see why they are hesitant. No programming director can afford to be the guy to back a product that may not pay off for ten or more years (probably long after he has been fired).

    I hope that someone over there at ESPN has the foresight and courage to support a football revolution in this country. But in this market, I dont see them taking on the risk/cost of creating and promoting a program that they can simply buy out later…regardless of how much I wish they would.

    Reply

    • Posted by Sam on 2010/02/17 at 12:21 PM

      I don’t know man, look at what the sounders have done. Grass roots support can do an awful lot to put a team on the map.

      Same thing with MLS.

      It may take a while but I’d say that the seeds are sown, and with a little bit of nurturing it will get there, especially as there’s more kids playing soccer than baseball (in my area anyway.)

      Does ESPN need to make a major jump and blow up the MLS into some elite league with non-stop action? No. That would do a disservice to the league.

      But could they show the sporting goods store that Troy Perkins used to work at when he was back up goalkeeper for D.C. United? Yes.

      They don’t properly need to splash cash for a crazy campaign, but where the leagues at right now a good number of the players aren’t making much more than the fans.

      Check out this: http://www.mlsplayers.org/files/september_15_2009_salary_information__alphabetical.pdf

      Look at all the players making $20,000-$35,000 a year. That’s where the leagues at.

      Minimum salary for a rookie in the NFL is $285,000

      So could they do a little bit extra to say, “look, here’s this sport that if you take the time to get into it has everything: it is great to kill a six pack to and generally has a whole human interest element that’s just as compelling off the field. And look ladies! there’s David Beckham… and look 12 year old girls from 1998! Stuart Holden looks like Aaron Carter!”

      It’s not that hard man. No revolution, no chicken or the egg. Just a little more press for what it is.

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/02/17 at 7:10 PM

        Sam, concur with you here again. Sustainable growth comes from impactful growth.

        The problem, in my opinion, in the past is that MLS was going to big. I love how they’ve grown actually–I think it’s prudent and smart.

        That’s why a few months back when the commish I believe was talking about 2020 I concurred….a lot more present day issues to tackle.

        If you’re around and thriving in 2020 you’ll deal with the issues that come up then.

        I might have the year off here by the way.

        Reply

  7. Posted by Rhodie on 2010/02/18 at 12:20 AM

    The one wildcard in this whole debate (one that I haven’t heard many talk about) is the growth of the DVR. I personally, because I work like normal people haven’t watched a live soccer game in two months, I watch on the DVR, but at the same time, most of what I watch I just record so that I don’t have to sit through the commercials. Even if I see something on in the evening, I will probably record it then start watching half way through and catch up. What I am wondering is, if this is the way that television is going, then how will advertising change to keep up with it, more in game banners and the like? If advertising goes this direction, I believe that soccer is the perfect sport for it, nothing to fast forward through and plenty of space and time for the advertising.

    Reply

  8. [...] Sam on soccer growth in America and ESPN:  “….the ball in MLS’ court to do two things. Generate ticket revenue and secure [...]

    Reply

  9. [...] • Bowling or Soccer: ESPN Presents We Make The Call [...]

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