Op-Ed: Fox Soccer Minus

This is a guest column by frequent TSG contributor Jay Bell.

Jay Bell begs to differ on the "Plus" part...

This international break is just concluding. Americans got a chance to watch some of their favorite countries play all over the world, except for the U.S. of course.

Fans got a chance to see the best teams in the world play, and for Europeans these games count.

Now U.S.-based fans will go back to MLS.

Some will be disappointed that MLS isn’t of better quality to compare with Euro qualifying (though, not many leagues are). For those who go back to watching Fox Soccer Channel’s “Match of the Week,” only more disappointment awaits. For a company that just began Fox Soccer Plus earlier in the year and fawns over the EPL, Serie A, and Champions League, FSC is still a huge disappointment for MLS fans.

You only have to look at the ratings to see that FSC’s presentation is still lacking. ESPN2 is now in about 98 million homes. The average 257,000 viewers is even down 10% from last season. Still that’s a .26. FSC has been able to get a boost from the World Cup and its broadcasts since have averaged 69,000 households and 92,000 viewers. That’s .17. For comparison, Telefutura’s Spanish broadcasts average 193,000 viewers. How does the soccer channel do worse than the other broadcasts?

Its easy to argue that ESPN2′s bigger audience attracts in more casual viewers. Why should it? We’re talking about soccer . . . in America. How many casual viewers are there for MLS? The most recent late Sunday match on ESPN2 between Chivas USA and D.C. United, both of which are mired at the bottom of the table, was only watched in a miniscule 77,000 households. It just goes to show that neither the league itself nor the channel determine how many people tune into the game. Other factors like quality of team, market size, matchups, and yes, production all determine how many people will watch. That last part is severely lacking at Fox Soccer Channel.

When an MLS fan tunes in to watch the weekly match on FSC, there is little to get excited about. They may mention the standings and injuries, but most of the pregame is superficial, pointless interviews and no real tactical analysis. It does not help that they make simple mistakes like confusing Fabian Espindola for Javier Morales, by saying that “the Argentine is one of the best players in the league”, and vague, qualitative statements like Arturo Alvarez having “the best left foot in the game.”

ESPN2 began last week’s broadcast with a look back to 1998. A flashback showed John Harkes (in the booth) with D.C. United and Ben Olsen scoring his first goal (now coaching) against Zach Thornton (Chivas’s GK) who was coached by Bob Bradley (who was in the stands). They then looked at D.C. United’s “revolving door” over the last 4 seasons and how it has affected the team. A graphic showed that Chivas was using their 18th different starting lineup that night. Harkes and Dellacamera looked at how Chivas has been more patient with Vazquez than D.C.U. was with Onalfo. In five minutes ESPN provided actual background and perspective that was more in-depth than an entire pre-game show on FSC.

It does not get better when the game starts either. FSC’s key points were that the teams needed to “set the tone” and Chivas needed to use the “home field advantage.” On FSC’s own “U.S. Soccer Journey for Glory,” one of the panelists stated that American soccer fans are not different from soccer fans in the rest of the world. They are just as passionate and just as smart. Yet FSC treats MLS fans like they’re not. Harkes and Dellacamera analyzed the formations and important players. For D.C. United, they needed to get the ball to Boskovic so he can spread it around the field. Chivas USA had a question mark of whether Braun and Maldonado could play well together and with the midfield. This isn’t groundbreaking, expert stuff, but it’s better than what they do on the soccer channel.

Christopher Sullivan (left), Max Bretos (right)...TSG: I like the "Yes" calls and I think Sullivan knows his stuff but is challenged getting it out sometimes...

The commentators are the least of the issue, but may be the most criticized. Plus, FSC’s best new commentator isn’t even commentating. Fans groaned that Max Bretos’s “Yesssssssss!” call was ridiculous, but now bemoan the lack of enthusiasm and energy in the booth (Bretos now use his knowledge and enthusiasm in the studio for ESPN). They did step it up a little bit by introducing a couple new commentators for CONCACAF Champions League matches. Paul Caligiuri immediately stood out for deeper description and actual soccer knowledge. Though, when the audio doesn’t dissuade viewers from watching, the visuals do.

Why are Champions League matches always in standard definition? I know it has to do with CONCACAF and it’s understandable that they may not want to send a crew to Honduras for an HD broadcast. What about games in Columbus and Salt Lake? Those games broadcast in HD for MLS games; why not CCL? FSC’s main news show is not even shown in HD. It all displays such a low-cost feel and no one wants to watch low-budget productions. If the viewer does continue to watch the game, they may be punished by missing a goal during one of FSC’s unimportant instant replays.

Almost all of today’s sports channels have realized the need to treat the viewers right. That includes intelligent analysis and sleek graphics. One channel that understands that is Versus. Their broadcast quality looks nothing less than ESPN. Edson Buddle recently appeared on Versus where he was asked questions about his team and the league, not the standard “do you like Beckham” questions. There are rumors that Versus could broadcast MLS games in the future. For MLS fans, that is an outstanding prospect. Versus is currently better in every facet of sports broadcasting and would do far more for MLS fans.

For now, MLS fans just have to hope FSC starts to treat them better. Ratings on ESPN do not merit a half hour studio show, but it should not be too much to expect on the soccer channel. Having a studio show just for MLS and improving its main news show would be a great start. It will not matter down the line if FSC does not provide better broadcasts that include better analysis, better graphics, and better video quality.

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34 responses to this post.

  1. Amen brother! I pray that MLS moves to Versus. They need a network that treats them like a valuable property, not an after thought. On ESPN, it’s understandable that they are a minor player, but on FSC??? Why??? Why on their Fox Soccer Report do they only bother to preview the game they are showing that weekend instead of talking about the relevant games for the week!

    Reply

    • The sad thing is I think MLS had that in HDNet. I was newer to the sport way back then, but I don’t ever remember the commentators or presentation being distracting (and of course the visuals were spectacular, even for the early days of HD sports). Maybe MLS asked too much for HDNet to renew their deal or MLS just wasn’t a worthy investment.

      Beckham’s 70 yard goal against Kansas City Wizards is still one of the highlights of my MLS viewing over the years.

      Either way, MLS has been desperate for someone else to step up and FSC has failed to do so in two years since.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Paul C on 2010/09/08 at 10:24 AM

    Glad to see some conversation about this. I’ve made a point of this in countless discussions with Europeans regarding MLS.

    It’s marketing 101: Every second of a companies image must be portrayed to its highest levels. From logos, to names, straight down the list (and I believe most importantly) to the commentators and production of games. As it stands there is not a single commentator on with FSC that transcribes the games properly. And why do they all need some ridiculous catch phrase? “YEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS” was horrible, but no worse than the current “IT’S IN THE NET. IT’S. IN. THE NET”.

    Bring in some commentators who have half a clue of how to do their jobs, and it will help the marketing of the league immensely.

    Reply

    • Your point about bringing in some commentators who have half a clue gave me an idea. We know Fox doesn’t like to splash the cash so why not do what the PL does and have a FanZone, I bet there are countless fans out there who will be more entertaining, if not more informed. Then you get your “talent” for even cheaper and they might unearth a couple of real gems.

      Reply

  3. I think we here at TSG – the community as well as the authors/columnists – need to find a way to start our own network or take over the FSC ship. Bobby McMahon is a great asset (it seems), but the other desk people on FSC Report just lob him stupid questions and interrupt him all the time. I love the news reports about the Euro Qualifiers and top European Leagues, but if ever a channel was ripe for a devoted MLS show, FSC is it. Provided they step up their game, of course.

    My biggest pet peeve, aside from the litany of the ones mentioned above, is that Fox Soccer Report often doubles back on the reporting they did earlier in the show, on a slow news day I can understand, but when there’s MLS, Euro Qualifying, and Euro Leagues to talk about 60 minutes should not even be enough time to get through the day’s news let alone recycle highlights.

    I think the issue is that we watch (pay for) FSC and we have for a long time, which means Fox doesn’t see a need to step up their game because they’re probably rolling in profits right now. Low and Stable Budget plus increased viewership/subscription means more and more money.

    Reply

  4. Posted by John Henry on 2010/09/08 at 10:33 AM

    FSC is terrible. I hope some exec from Versus reads this and sees the opportunity.

    Reply

  5. Posted by SteveM11 on 2010/09/08 at 11:18 AM

    Part of the problem is still lack of talent in the MLS. Sorry, but when I watch some of the teams I just think ‘meh’. Or worse. I’d put more time and money into EPL and other Europe properties, too. Not saying they can’t do WAY better with MLS, but MLS needs to get WAY better on the field.

    Reply

    • Posted by cosmosredux on 2010/09/08 at 11:25 AM

      See I disagree here Steve.

      Something that ESPN has done very well with Poker (and bowling) for example, if have the viewer invest themselves in a player.

      For example, someone like a Phil Hellmuth is a polarizing figure–he hasn’t won a Poker World Championship since 1989. Is the way he plays versus others special? No.

      But people watch Phil Hellmuth because they’re invested in his “character” (not qualitative “character,” but personality/character).

      I think ESPN will start doing more of this and Fox should follow suit.

      Now as for the game, ask yourself this question? Do people watch the Little League World Series or poor college football teams…the answer is yes…so the quality of the game matters less.

      It would be a poor move to put “money” into EPL in one fell swoop. First, Brits are already up in arms over an American company televising the game.

      More importantly, there is no leverage there (EPL can demand what they want, ESPN can’t say move the game to 7pm at night and the players are mostly overseas.) It would be just another example of having to buy into a big league.

      MLS is a good gambit at this time. Yes, the talent has to improve but it’s a better investment.

      My two cents.

      Reply

      • Agreed.

        Part of this has to do with the broadcast deals MLS has right now. I think they are required to show every team a certain amount of games. At this point, its holding the league back. We know that there are players and teams that get better ratings, but MLS broadcasts fluctuate from matchups like LA vs. NY in a sold out premier soccer stadium to two teams at the bottom of the table in the worst stadium in MLS.

        In this manner, quality matters, but not as much as reputation, markets, and continued interest. In 2007, the Galaxy were on tv every week because of Beckham. However, that lured in actual Galaxy fans, not just Beckham fans because people who watched got to know the whole team. This would happen again with Seattle, Chicago, LA, and New York. Those 4 teams are in huge markets, have good attendance, and star players. Columbus and RSL are two of the best teams in the league. At least two of those six teams should be featured on MLS’s national broadcasts every week.

        Some vieweres may tune in every week to watch Beckham, Donovan, Henry,etc., but in doing so they gain an interest in the overall team. How did Landon Donovan’s time with Everton affect the Blues’ American fan base? I have a friend who only watches soccer games that I invite him over to watch. This Thursday, he WANTS to watch the Seattle Sounders game because he’s heard so many positives about them. What if he was intrigued by that match, then had another Sounders game every single week after that? He’d get hooked.

        Should ESPN and FSC throw money at the EPL and Champions League? Maybe. Americans want to see the best. However, that shouldn’t affect FSC at least improving what little they invest in MLS.

        btw, random thought: what if every MLS broadcast had a feature on a young player and a veteran player? If ESPN or FSC had done that with a broadcast earlier in the year, how many people would be even more interested in Donovan’s slump or the continuing improvements of Michael Stephens or Tristan Bowen? Columbus – Schelotto and Ekpo. RSL – Beckerman (how many casual viewers no of his past with the Don and the Beaz??) and Gonzalez. Dallas – Ferreira and Shea. People say they don’t want to invest interest in a player that will be leaving soon (Montero?), but if you feature both a young player AND a veteran player, then the teams aren’t likely to lose both before viewers gain an interest in the players and/or the teams.

        Reply

      • Posted by kaya on 2010/09/08 at 1:11 PM

        Interesting point. I guess there are a lot of people who will watch anything if you package it right.
        I still suspect there are lots of people who like soccer who watch p2p feeds. They might not be MLS fans now, but could become fans if they could purchase a good quality soccer network a la carte.

        Reply

    • I think these are two entirely separate issues. I’m such a soccer junkie I’ll watch anything, but I almost go out of my way to avoid FSC. They have the most laughably amateurish production values I’ve ever seen, and I often mute the sound when I want to watch a game.

      They’ve coasted on the desperation and gratitude of soccer fans for too long. As the sport gets more and more popular, FSC is going to get left in the dirt

      Reply

      • The one nice thing that FSC has done with their broadcast of the EPL and Champions League is tap into the English/British commentary instead of providing their own, making the game at least ten times better to listen to.

        Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/08 at 1:38 PM

        I love FSC for the quantity of games that I can watch, but I agree with the comments regarding the pre-game, HT and post-game analysis. It is simply awful.

        I am surprised there hasn’t been a Game Theorist writing about this…

        Reply

  6. Posted by John on 2010/09/08 at 12:09 PM

    Fox Soccer has a pre-game show?

    Reply

  7. Posted by kaya on 2010/09/08 at 1:06 PM

    Thanks for this. It confirms why I don’t even bother paying for enough TV to include FSC =)
    I think a huge part of the problem in viewership numbers is also the onerous packages cable companies hoist on you to even receive these channels. I know ESPN2 isn’t hard to get like FSC, but I don’t receive it. I think just like a lot of “kids these days” won’t pay for a landline as well as a cell phone, they don’t want to pay $100/month for mostly programming they don’t want. Thus the however many hundreds of thousands of households that actually receive ESPN2 and FSC are mostly older folks who just consider huge cable packages a fixed cost of life. Guess what? These people won’t ever watch soccer. Though their kids might when they’re visiting.)
    I’d be happy to pay money for decent quality (HD is def an issue, along with quality commentary) programming I actually want to watch… right now I pay what I consider an appalling sum of money to receive only channels you’d get over the air, in low def. $30 a month for that?! I only do it because I can’t get fast enough DSL in my area and need cable internet access (Limited Time Promotion!!! Only $19.99/month for existing cable customers!!!)
    There are a million feeds on myp2p.eu every weekend, and lots of them are very good quality (hope you don’t mind watching in Hungarian!) Until there’s a paradigm shift in the way this content is distributed, I feel there will be an issue in reaching the audience that is most interested in it.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/09 at 2:43 AM

      If you watch the EPL and England, FSC and FS+ are a must!!

      Reply

      • Posted by kaya on 2010/09/09 at 2:00 PM

        I often watch it via P2P, which is obviously not the same thing… I literally watch no tv besides soccer… I’m not a starving student, but I simply won’t pay the amount of $ comcast demands to receive it.

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/09 at 2:13 PM

          Hmmm, interesting. The only thing is that I watch the game live, but I also record certain games (especially those with players I like, or up-and-coming players) and pause-play-pause-play-rewind-replay etc. I didn’t think you could do that with an internet feed / streaming etc…

          Reply

        • Posted by kaya on 2010/09/09 at 3:46 PM

          Technically, pretty much anything is possible if you’re receiving the content on your computer, but it’s often not at all convenient, that’s for sure. ESPN3 is an interesting part of the ESPN network and I hope it continues to grow.
          But back to the point of the post (MLS viewership), there are a lot of expats in the bay area who watch soccer the way I do. While I’m amongst a lot of tech types, we’re 30 somethings… and I think things are heading this direction with all the younger folks.
          The MLS is heading in the right direction, and I think these viewers could become at least casual fans to the US league, too.

          Reply

    • Posted by Faith on 2010/09/10 at 11:20 AM

      I so agree with this. In order to get FSC and FSC+ on Dish Network, I would have to pay for the package that includes literally every single channel they offer. That $135/month ($145 if you want it in HD). I’m paying $30 now. No way I’m going for that. If they were smart, they’d let me give them an extra 10 bucks a month for just those two channels. Until then, I’ll be watching substandard streams online.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/10 at 11:32 AM

        I wish that was an option just to buy the 2 channels a la carte.

        They must have done some sort of sensitivity analysis on this, regarding the money they would lose from people prepared to pay the $135 vs revenue from a la carte customers. They’re all about profit maximisation rather than sales maximisation. It would sure be interesting to see the data.

        Reply

        • Posted by kaya on 2010/09/10 at 11:54 AM

          I sincerely doubt it. The typical consumer they’re aiming for has 1 person in it who wants to catch every region of the american college football conferences. They need the deluxe package and get the soccer channels thrown in; it’s that simple.
          Congress passed a law requiring a la carte programming for cable and satellite in 2007. Between the interests of the (something like) 3 companies that own 90% of the content distributed and the obvious benefit to satellite/cable companies of selling tiered packages, I think you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

          Reply

  8. Posted by jeremy on 2010/09/08 at 2:35 PM

    I agree. I would say the biggest market is the up and comming generatioin. I am in college right now and I saw how big the world cup was here with my fellow students and everyone is still excited about socccer. Every week I have friends going to a RSL game. But we are poor and in college. Then those who are in college or graduating with have families dont have enough money to buy a bigger cable package. Most everyone I know watches online (channelsurfing.net) its great. We stick with that and whatever games are on espn2.

    Reply

    • Hmmmmmm, I wish there was a way we could measure those numbers. I’ve never actually thought about American viewers going online to watch American soccer matches. I know we do it for foreign/international soccer games, but are there many that do it for MLS matches? If so, then the television numbers for ESPN and FSC just aren’t telling the whole story for how much interest there is in MLS.

      Reply

      • Posted by kaya on 2010/09/08 at 9:23 PM

        I’m not sure if there’s a natural pent-up demand for MLS, so simply going with an “on demand” online model isn’t going to cultivate that potential market. However, I think if you could break the stranglehold the cable companies have in pushing large packages on customers, you would find a lot of people who want to pay, say, $5-10/month for access to HD soccer content. These people would come for La Liga and EPL and stay for MLS games. Combine that with quality commentary and you have a growing market.
        I suppose an on-line “channel” of content could work, but if ESPN3′s reliability since the WC is any indication of what I could expect, that’s a problem. This could easily devolve into a discussion of net neutrality which isn’t looking so promising of late.

        Reply

  9. Posted by DeuceForPrez on 2010/09/08 at 2:36 PM

    The announcers show little interest in selling the match, the graphics used to show the lineups or other points are bush league PowerPoint-esqe graphics, the studio set is something out of a public access garage sale, and, as mentioned, almost no thoughtful analysis takes place. FSC and FS+ are pretty bad; unfortunately, I have no were else to turn to catch the matches I want.

    Hopefully, with news ESPN is getting more matches, instead of just buying them from FSC, we’ll see a better produce or at least competition for FSC.

    Reply

    • Best case scenario is for ESPN to continue emphasize soccer on its networks (though the talking heads still want to reject the sport) and for Versus to become the #2 MLS broadcaster. If Versus comes in and gets better numbers than FSC, then they’ll see that they have to step up their game if they’re going to continue to attract American soccer fans.

      Reply

  10. great read, me and my friends have been saying the same thing for years

    Reply

  11. Posted by Aaron on 2010/09/08 at 8:39 PM

    I desperately need FSC in HD, but I can’t get it in HD. It looks so horrible.

    Reply

    • Having FSC in HD comes in handy about 10 hours out of the entire week. MLS and CONCACAF Champions League matches are still pretty poor quality. I was watching an MLS game the other day with my friend and I showed him the difference between the football game Versus was showing and the Columbus/DCU match on FSC. He said “that’s HD???” I said “yep, that’s what we have to put up with.”

      Reply

  12. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/09 at 2:53 AM

    I am not saying it’s a long term solution but if FSC are getting the feed for the game from Sky for the game, then why can’t they get the punditary and analysis as well? Surely that’s a better option than Christian Miles, Warren Barton, Keith Costigan and Booby McMahon?!

    Reply

  13. When will the Premiership and other leagues skip the middlemen and just provide live HD streams from its won website for a reasonable annual subscription fee?

    Reply

  14. Posted by Faith on 2010/09/10 at 11:27 AM

    You hit the nail on the head — FSC treats us like we’re clueless about soccer, and it’s ridiculous. If your viewers are willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money to receive a channel that exclusively discusses & broadcasts soccer, they probably have a pretty good grasp on the game. Give us some credit, FSC! And give us some analysis that’ll justify our ridiculously high cable bills.

    Reply

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