Sunday, September 6, 2015

Chap 14) Fierce Competition from Within

There is certainly not a lack of professional soccer played on cable television in the U.S.  The problem for MLS has been that the majority of pro soccer shown on Tv comes from other professional leagues around the world.  The support for this foreign pro soccer product, in terms of television ratings, varies depending on the league.

In the U.S., the two leagues that generate the most support are from Mexico and England, Liga MX and EPL (English Premier League).  But, pretty much, on any given day throughout the year, there is an American audience tuned in for Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga and others from-Italy, Argentina, Brasil, and the list goes on. There's also periodic broadcasts of international club friendlies, cross-league club battles during Champions Leagues (UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations and CONCACAF, the Confederation of North-Central and Caribbean Football Associations), and representations from National teams.

I wrote about the amazing selections that soccer offers sports fans in 2011, 'Is Living Room Tv Big Enough for MLS?'

If you have just basic Time Warner Cable, last night you got a chance to see three Mexican First Division games, one Friendly from the Herbalife Ultra Challenge between Chivas of Mexico and Barcelona of Spain, and one CONCACAF Champions League match between a Mexican club and Honduras club.  It all happened from 8p.m. central time till 11p.m.  These matches were seen on Telefutura, Galavision and Telemundo, all Spanish TV stations.

MLS clubs played league matches last night and some teams were participating in CCL play, but none of the teams were televised last night on basic TWC. 

For obvious reasons, today's big headline in Soccer is Klinsmann's roster for the National team.  Thus, we have Friendlies, Exhibitions, Challenges, the Mexican pro league, CCL play and the U.S. National team all in the news at the same time.  Also, let's not forget the U-20 World Cup in Columbia is in group play (clearing of the throat-tinge of sarcasm there for the inclusion of the Under-20).

With such an abundance of Soccer available on so many channels, on the internet and at all hours of the day, every day-catching games spontaneously is an option.  Can MLS get lost in the shuffle?

It appears it can, from a national perspective.  It seems just the opposite for the other 'big 3' team spectator sports.  They get plenty of national coverage.  Just about every sportscaster from local sports news goes over the scores and some highlights (in season) of MLB, NBA and the NFL, as does every sports section from the local newspaper.

Local support for MLS teams, though, is getting better with every year.  The sports pages of the local paper and sportscasts from the local newscasts are giving more in-depth coverage of their respective MLS teams.  So, what gives?  If the national coverage is lame, but the local coverage is improving, how is MLS judged?

Attendance is a critical aspect towards the success of spectator sports.  Any excellent turnout to a live ballgame boosts revenue and stature in the community.

But, ticket revenue and attendance figures only go so far.  Ultimately, ratings, whether its radio, television, the internet or the newspaper, provides everything one needs to know about success, beyond just the statistics from the game.  Advertisers want to hook more than just the 15-20,000 (or 35,000 at Seattle Sounders games) in attendance, they are looking to go after big fish and schools of fish.

If Soccer from different leagues other than MLS is being shown on basic cable television consistently in the U.S. and is always available on expanded cable television, as it has been for a number of years, then the most efficient measuring stick for MLS' popularity will have to come from a local perspective. 

Ratings from each MLS market must be analyzed and dissected when trying to understand the MLS phenomena.  National TV ratings may not tell the whole story. 

It could be a very, very long time before any major changes occur for MLS in terms of national ratings.  There is simply too much other Soccer being shown on U.S. television outlets at this time.  MLS doesn't have the presence with sports consumers to compete with all of its soccer competition.

For some other countries, the first division league makes national news always, regardless of all the other soccer happenings.  For MLS, local headlines will have to do.

It didn't used to be like this, but the pervasiveness of cable Tv and ongoing technologies has allowed for soccer's growth of its biggest world leagues to impact segments of U.S. soccer fans.  These fans have grown accustomed to the form and style of different world leagues.  For more than a generation, these fans have been cultivated and they are the ones, in many respects, that drive all of the conversations regarding pro soccer in the U.S.  They act like know-it-alls.  They are the American converts of FIFA authoritative world soccer.  And, they are in cahoots with Europeans that have transitioned to living full-time in the U.S.  Together, they are watching other world leagues with more attention and detail than MLS and they have all been conditioned to believe in the FIFA traditional and conservative ways of how professional soccer should be played.

EPL really began to get its biggest U.S. promotion with the NFL on Fox broadcasts.  I wrote about this combination in 2011, 'Will EPL Work Well as Partner to NFL, Super Bowl?'


FOX television broadcasting company announced Thursday that three EPL tape-delayed matches will be partnered with NFL games on Sundays this fall and one live match on Super Bowl Sunday.  "Soccer is moving into the mainstream of American sports," said FOX Soccer general manager David Nathanson.

He went on to say it only makes sense to use NFL Sundays to broadcast EPL matches to a broader audience.  The three tape-delayed matches will be seen before or after an NFL game.  The live match will begin its broadcast several hours prior to the start of the Super Bowl.

FOX television missed a golden opportunity with MLS during the span of their contract to move some matches from their FOX Soccer Channel to their main 'Simpsons' network, FOX.  Then, they missed out again to sign them up for a new contract.

NBC Sports will begin its MLS contract with only a few broadcasts on its main network, NBC, and will put the majority of them on their new purchase, NBC Sports Network (currently, Versus). 

NBC and FOX are two of the most watched television networks, according to Nielsen ratings.  This move by FOX is an obvious counter to NBC's deal with MLS and their promos during their ratings juggernaut, Sunday Night Football.  FOX wants to try and usurp the spotlight from NBC by using what is considered by many experts as the best soccer league in the world, the EPL.

Aside from tape-delay and time difference issues, does this marketing move work for FOX?  Will they be able to bring in more American viewers to their EPL future broadcasts?  

A bigger question is, can EPL ever gain a mainstream sports audience in the U.S.?  And, an even bigger set of questions are, between the two leagues, EPL and MLS, which is more likely to get the mainstream status, if it ever happens, and who will get it first?

My first thoughts regarding the competition are that most Americans would never accept a foreign league as their own league.  It doesn't matter how good EPL is, Americans will always place a priority on their own league, MLS.  The overall skill may be less in MLS, but American sports fans either may not realize it, may not care or shouldn't care.  Watching their own cities compete should be the preferred choice over watching foreign ones.

FOX has its baby, the EUFA Champions League Cup, which it showed on its main network for the first time, earlier this year.  Barcelona dominated Manchester, but the skill was splendid in the game and surely it taught more Americans to become fans of European Soccer.

At this point, as chief decision maker for a big TV network, which league makes the most sense for an American audience? 

Did I have it wrong?  One thing is for sure.  I underestimated the power and allure of the EPL.   

The battle for supremacy between MLS and EPL became more intriguing when, a few years later, NBC got the rights to EPL broadcasts.  Could Americans put more emphasis on a foreign league over their own home-grown league?  I wrote about NBC's partnership with EPL in 2015, 'EPL's Weekend Morning Niche is the Perfect Storm.'  

The EPL has taken the American sports world by storm.

When it was first learned a few years back that the English Premier League would broadcast live action for American television on Saturday and Sunday mornings, most veteran sports pundits didn't think much about it. The idea of EPL making any kind of ratings impact wasn't taken all that seriously.

The three biggest reasons for media members to think that EPL wouldn't fly with the casual American sports fans were;
1) Soccer is only important during the World Cup
2) Foreign leagues would not get the attention because of a lack of familiarity
3) There wouldn't be an audience to watch so early in the mornings.

The prognosticators were wrong on all three accounts.  The ratings for EPL on NBCSN and NBC keep going up.

In fact, now, EPL gets better ratings than the NHL on NBCSN.

The interest in EPL shows that American sports fans like soccer even if its not the World Cup and they will watch a foreign league without significant knowledge for the history of the teams.  The attraction is there because of the high skill level and quality competition.  Ultimately, it is the artistry of the game that pushes sports fans to watch.

As casual sports fans watch EPL, they are surely getting more acquainted with the players, many of which are considered the best in the world.  Certainly, one of the best reasons to watch is this opportunity to see great players play against each other in high-paced action.

But, the biggest catalyst for the unexpected ratings boost is the opening to watch sports in the early mornings on Saturdays and Sundays.  I believe these time slots without any kind of antagonist (sports competition) are the key element that hooks in viewers.  The combination of a popular sport, played at a high quality with great players during a time when a majority of casual sports fans are waking up without having to go anywhere is the perfect storm for a ratings boom-which this is (all things considered).

Golf's British Open tends to have excellent ratings on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  When Tiger Woods was playing his best, the Open was at its most compelling to watch and the ratings proved this out.  Let's not forget about Tennis' Wimbledon and the French Open as proven commodities for their early American weekend sports watching.

Early Saturday and Sunday mornings have been there for the taking on the sports calendar this whole generation and EPL has slithered in.

The niche has been established and now people are finding ways to root for EPL teams that they may not have known much about before.

With unexpected television ratings competition from international soccer leagues, shouldn't American pro soccer try to become what it needs to be to attract a larger casual sports fan audience?  This kind of foreign league competition is just one more reason for MLS to try and distinguish itself and become a completely American brand of soccer.  A higher scoring average would have more broad appeal and could ultimately get fans to tune out from those other foreign leagues.

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