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TV networks hope to ride soccer surge

Clint Dempsey has a strong following as a World Cup player and with the MLS’s Seattle Sounders.
Published Jul. 16, 2014

It was the 84th minute of the World Cup final.

Germany and Argentina were locked in a tense 0-0 game. The first goal almost assuredly would be the deciding goal in one of the best soccer tournaments we have ever seen.

As we inched dramatically toward a thrilling conclusion, ESPN announcer Ian Darke took a moment to remind fans that later that night on ESPN, Portland was taking on Seattle in a key Major League Soccer match.

"Should be terrific,'' Darke said.

The World Cup wasn't even over and already ESPN was trying to ride the soccer wave into the future.

Get ready for NBC and Fox to do the same.

Are you ready for some futbol?

The World Cup provided huge television ratings for ESPN and the Spanish-speaking Univision over the past month.

Two of the games involving the United States were the two most-watched men's soccer matches in American television history. ABC/ESPN averaged 4.56 million viewers for the 64 World Cup matches, a big bump over 2010. Univision averaged 3.5 million viewers for this World Cup.

Sunday's Germany-Argentina final drew 17.3 million viewers on ABC alone, more than watched the deciding game of the NBA Finals, more than the Kentucky Derby, more than the deciding game of the World Series and nearly twice as many as watched the final round of the Masters golf tournament.

Never has soccer been this popular on television in this country.

But what does it all mean? What happens now? Can soccer become a big deal on American television?

"Our hope is that now that the World Cup has ended, people will want to continue to see these great players play,'' said Jon Miller, NBC Sports and NBCSN president of programming. "We certainly expect to see an upward growth.''

No question that the best professional soccer league in the world is the English Premier League. NBC Sports Group is the exclusive rights holder in the United States for the next two seasons. The 2014-15 season begins next month.

"What we have observed is that the American sports fans want to watch the best of the best,'' Miller said. "There's a reason why the NFL does so well. There's a reason why the NHL does so well. The best basketball in the world is played in the NBA.''

NBC has earned rave reviews for its coverage and deservedly so. A record 31.5 million Americans tuned into last season's Premier League coverage on NBC Sports Group. Games often draw nearly 400,000 viewers.

Those numbers please NBC but consider this: Between ABC, Univision and live streaming on the Internet, an estimated 24.7 million watched the United States play Portugal in the World Cup. The point? There is a big difference between watching a huge game every four years and getting people to watch soccer every week.

"I like to say that World Cup is a nice, wonderful short story that a lot of people are going to follow,'' said ESPN senior VP Scott Guglielmino, who oversees the network's soccer programming such as Major League Soccer. "It's not the same thing as paying attention to MLS or the Premier League on a daily basis for 10 months.''

So, how do you get novice viewers who are interested in World Cup matches to watch English Premier League or MLS games consistently? How do you entice all those viewers who paint their faces and pack bars to watch one special game to then get up every Saturday and Sunday to watch games at 8 in the morning?

ESPN's Guglielmino believes there is a halo effect, that those who got the soccer bug during the World Cup might now start following some of the World Cup stars back to their club teams. Already, according to Guglielmino, there has been a spike in the number of viewers of the MLS matches on ESPN post-World Cup.

NBC's Miller suggests that a great way to build audiences is to create habit viewing. Fans know that every Saturday and Sunday morning and every Monday afternoon there is a Premier League game.

Meantime, it has been a harder sell for Major League Soccer. While it's an improving league that is getting better, it remains a long way from the Premier League. Television numbers have been sluggish, although through the first four games on ESPN/ESPN2 this summer, ratings are up about 58 percent over last year. Average viewership is about 353,000.

But starting next season, Fox and ESPN will share the MLS rights and already have formed a plan to create a routine for the viewer. ESPN and Fox Sports 1 will televise back-to-back MLS matches on Sundays at 5 and 7 p.m. Meantime, Univision will have its own exclusive on Fridays. More than 125 matches are expected to be shown each year through the 2022 season.

Guglielmino said ESPN, Fox and Univision will pool their ideas with MLS to come up with a common marketing strategy. It's rare, but this is a case of competitors working together to increase viewership of a product that they all show.

"We need to grow the league with a business plan that makes sense,'' Guglielmino said. "It's a crowded landscape, but we're definitely bullish on the sport and on MLS. With a concerted and consistent effort … we like our odds.''

Meantime, Fox continues to be a heavy hitter when it comes to soccer in America. Aside from sharing MLS rights with ESPN starting next season, Fox will show various leagues and tournaments, including the UEFA Champions League through 2018. And it now becomes the home of the World Cup, taking over the rights from ESPN.

"If you look at the money that we here at Fox and NBC and ESPN have dedicated to soccer rights, it's a testament to our belief in the sport and our belief of soccer on television in the United States,'' said David Nathanson, general manager and chief operating officer of Fox Sports 1.

To help grow the sport, Fox hopes to establish announcer Gus Johnson as the voice of American soccer, an important step, according to Nathanson.

Everyone — the networks, the leagues, the die-hard fans — agree that the next year is critical in the growth of soccer in America.

The World Cup is a great foundation, but now everyone has to build off it. It might be soccer's last chance.

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