Chapter 3 of the book devotes three sections to soccer, and that was cut down from my initial draft of that part of the book. Because of the number of different important competitions represented, soccer presented several different examples of the fight between different sports outfits to pick up rights, and the most obvious example I found of how smaller, more niche sports and competitions benefitted from the competition. Even if soccer weren’t enjoying a boom in popularity, there would probably be a lot of it available on sports networks in the digital-cable era, especially given how much of it airs at times when no American sports are on. But my initial draft of the chapter would have spent a lot more time on the soccer boom itself, and just how much Fox Sports World/Fox Soccer Channel, and later ESPN’s World Cup coverage, contributed to it.
If I had to guess, I doubt anyone at Fox had any high-minded notions of increasing soccer’s popularity in the United States when they launched Fox Sports World. They just wanted to get their piece of the digital cable boom and supplement the Fox Sports Net group of regional sports networks they were building, and international rights Fox already held was an easy way to build such a network. Besides the rights Fox owned itself, the Prime network that was FSN’s foundation had aired a weekly hour-long highlight show of matches from England’s Premier League until losing the rights to ESPN in 1996, as well as airing the 1995 FA Cup final live, and operated a Spanish-language RSN in the Los Angeles area Fox converted into the (nationwide) Spanish-language version of Fox Sports World. To be sure, Fox ran an ad campaign for the network centered around its soccer coverage during the 1998 World Cup, less than a year into the network’s existence (until ESPN put the kibosh on cable companies and ABC affiliates running ads for a competitor), but Peter Ligouri, head of marketing for the division that included Fox Sports World and FSN, claimed the ads were targeted at people who were already familiar with the world-class leagues Fox Sports World aired. “We are not trying to grow the sport, we are trying to showcase our inventory,” he said. Even within Fox, it must have seemed doubtful anyone would be interested in FSW’s programming other than expatriates looking to keep up with the action back home.
Two years later, though, people at Fox were already starting to change their tune, as a quote from FSW’s then-general manager in the book shows. Fox Sports World’s programs, later Fox Soccer Channel’s programs, may have been shot out of broom closets at public-access budgets, but besides exposing many would-be soccer fans to action never before available in America (or in many cases, outside their home country) before, it served as a place where they could get soccer news and information at a time when the Internet was in its infancy, and became the hub of an entire soccer community, one destined to change the course of American soccer history. Their impact was already being felt in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, when they expressed outrage with ESPN’s lead announcer, Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer with limited soccer experience. As a result, part of John Skipper’s strategy for the 2010 Cup was to build an announce team consisting entirely of British announcers known for their work on the Premier League – mostly people that had appeared on ESPN’s coverage they had already begun sub-licencing from Fox.
Jon Miller, who helped create the NHL’s Winter Classic and became President of Programming for NBC Sports after the Comcast acquisition, tells a story about getting up early on a Saturday morning to play golf, only a year or two after the 2006 World Cup, and seeing the surprising sight of his son, having come in late the previous night, up barely five hours later watching Manchester United play. His other son also got up early to watch Liverpool games, and he saw other neighborhood kids get up at the crack of dawn to watch the Premier League. “I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something here to this.’ If you don’t learn from your kids you’re making a big mistake,” he reflected several years later. It was his first inkling of just how powerful a property the Premier League could be, and how successful it was already being for Fox Soccer, which would soon become Nielsen-rated and put numbers on the Premier League’s stateside popularity.
MLS, which had attempted to court youth soccer players at its launch, pivoted to embrace a more European model of soccer fandom based on older fans with more of a connection to the team. Seattle Sounders FC was a pioneer of the strategy; it reached out to local bars and restaurants at its launch and capitalized on many older fans’ connection with the team’s prior incarnation in the NASL, and was rewarded by shooting to the top of the league’s attendance charts, pulling in attendance figures higher than most MLS stadiums even held in capacity (many of them “soccer-specific stadiums” built in the preceding decade) and that would put them in the middle of the pack in the Premier League. By 2015, when the new New York City FC club created a new intra-New York rivalry, both sides did their best to try to imitate the European model of soccer fandom – in both its best and worst aspects: in August, fans of NYCFC and the older Red Bulls threw sandwich boards and curses at each other and sang taunts straight out of the English playbook. Thanks in part to increased interest in the league and the increased rights haul from the most recent television deal, MLS has also become a more attractive destination for players from around the world, even some in the prime of their careers, particularly from Latin America.
As for Fox Soccer, the international soccer fanbase it helped build not only proved its undoing, it ended up turning on its creator, the result both of its increased power as the fight for sports on cable heated up and the increased attention soccer was getting from people higher up the chain of command. Towards the end of Fox Soccer’s run, Fox began making a number of moves to target the general American sports market that succeeded only in alienating the hardcore soccer community it had built, the most infamous of them being an attempt to groom Gus Johnson as “the voice of American soccer”. Johnson had become a cult figure with his exuberant calls in the NCAA basketball tournament, but putting him on high-profile Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup matches with next to no soccer experience only led to him becoming nearly as reviled as O’Brien among soccer fans. The Johnson experiment and other ill-fated moves, and a general perception of falling behind ESPN in production quality, meant many soccer fans weren’t all that broken up to see Fox Soccer go. Fox Soccer, the chief vector for the increasing popularity of the sport in the United States, had ended up collapsing under the weight of the very phenomenon it helped spawn.