The Changing Landscape of American Soccer Media: Good for MLS?

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It’s almost cliché to point out the growth of television coverage of soccer in North America. The announcement this week that Fox would screen the UEFA Champions League final on  Fox Sports, rather than as originally planned on subsidiary FX, made major waves. It’ll be broadcast in the afternoon on a Saturday, so strong ratings are expected, as the event continues its march as the world’s most popular annual sporting event on television.

Fox have done a tremendous job since winning the rights to the Champions League this year, with their multi-channel HD broadcasts on DirecTV an oustanding advance from ESPN’s previous, more limited coverage.

ESPN and ABC are not sitting on their hands, though. In June, ABC will show the United States play England, in what’s expected to be the most watched soccer broadcast of all-time in the United States. ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup is expected to be the most expensive production of a sporting event in their history. Hell, if you’re really a masochist, you can even listen to every game on ESPN radio this summer…lead commentator, one Tommy Smyth. ESPN will be showing 83 Premier League games next season, up from 48 this. One day soon, Fox Soccer Channel will appear in HD on our televisions (please, god!).

The media landscape is also changing for writers. Brooks Peck’s irreverent soccer blog Dirty Tackle was bought by Yahoo!, and Ives Galarcep this week announced he was moving his freelance work from ESPN Soccernet to join Fox. We side with Fake Sigi on the quality of Ives’ writing (and check out the brilliant fourth comment there), but hell, it’s good to see soccer writers being picked up at a tough time for the media as a whole.

The question as ever is whether all this is good for the domestic leagues. ESPN is adding more Premier League games to its broadcast schedule this year, and once again, bloggers like Jason Davis are asking if this is really good for Major League Soccer:

MLS will always remain a second class citizen in the United States as long as it’s taking a back seat to leagues from distant shores. While the lack of visibility and money constraints are the major reasons for that situation now, television will play a large part in the future. Though watching the English game (thanks to the time difference) doesn’t preclude people from watching MLS as well, the juxtaposition of the two does the American product no favors.

There’s certainly some truth to that. At the same time, it’s been pretty clear for some time that when MLS targets its marketing to people that already like soccer — and much of this “liking” comes from watching overseas broadcasts of it — it bears fruit.  See the early days of DC United and Chicago, see Toronto, see Seattle. The combination of the massive youth participation in the sport by men and women now in their 20s who have also taken a serious interest in overseas football and the World Cups shown on television in the past decade is a demographic that MLS rightly recognises as prime for pumping in the coming years.

An interesting minor move was made this week reflecting that approach by Seattle, who picked up Arlo White from the BBC to be the main commentator for their games this year. Expansion team the Philadelphia Union has partnered with local network 6ABC with all games to be broadcast in HD featuring commentary by the solid ESPN-vet JP Dellacamera. The production of MLS games on television needs to match that of overseas broadcasts, and MLS appears to understand that.

This doesn’t, of course, address the issue of the quality of the play on the field in MLS, which Davis is implying will put-off fans of the Premier League from watching MLS. This subjective and age-old argument is very hard to prove based on anecdotal evidence, even though it’s clear there is a kernel of truth to it.  The next year for MLS might prove it one way or the other, though: the explosion in coverage of overseas football will or will not lead to a bump in attendance and TV ratings as the league attempts to market itself to the growing audience for the sport.

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