@GrantWahl’s Blood is on the World’s Hands

I had set a deadline of November 2022 for me to make enough of my life to move out from my dad’s apartment. Obviously, that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that, last Christmas, we reached an agreement for me to spend over a month with my mom in Seattle from before Thanksgiving until after Christmas, with arrangements for how I was to be supported during that time, which I’m in the midst of now.

Why go to all that trouble? Because I fully intended to boycott the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and that would have to mean getting away from my soccer-crazed dad. 

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Is MLS’ Deal with Apple TV the Future of Sports?

Three years ago, back in the Before Times, SportsBusiness Journal reported that Major League Soccer had opted to do something rather eyebrow-raising. MLS had told its existing and future teams not to sell local broadcast rights beyond 2022 when its national TV deals were set to expire, in hopes of maximizing the value the league could offer to potential media partners. With both national and local TV revenue falling short of other soccer or American professional sports leagues, this represented a big gamble to try and maximize the league’s media revenue going forward, but Awful Announcing observed that it carried a big risk of backfiring regardless of whether or not it was successful. It would almost assuredly only work if MLS reached a deal with a streaming service, at a time when tech companies had shown little serious interest in American sports and legacy media companies were only just starting to dip their toes in the water of streaming, and most companies would likely balk at taking on both national and local MLS rights; by not being able to sell local rights to the most valuable teams separately those teams’ rights would be undervalued, and with them, potentially local MLS rights as a whole; but on the flip side, if MLS didn’t sell local rights to anyone, all the teams would be stuck with what the state of the local rights market, and of local MLS TV ratings, would be in 2022, for better and worse.

In the end, though, MLS’ gamble paid off brilliantly – and in a way that could forge a path for other leagues going forward. Two weeks ago MLS announced a 10-year agreement with Apple unlike any other in American sports. While Apple is guaranteeing MLS $250 million a year, and will have the rights to show some games for free and on Apple TV+, the core of the deal is a partnership MLS and Apple are entering into to create a new streaming service, accessible through the Apple TV app, with rights to every single MLS game, across the country and around the world, whether in- or out-of-market. MLS will produce coverage of every game with commentary in English and Spanish (and French for Canadian teams) or from each team’s local radio broadcast. MLS still hopes to reach an agreement with a linear TV partner(s), but any such games would be simulcast with Apple, not exclusive, and in a “letter to fans” from Commissioner Don Garber, it’s indicated that any such agreement would only be for the “early years” of the partnership, meaning if streaming of live sports was sufficiently mainstream down the line, MLS could yet abandon linear TV entirely. 

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Atlanta United Is Proof the Sounders’ Success Doesn’t Have to Be Unique

The Seattle Sounders’ eight-year run atop the MLS attendance charts has come to an end. After leading the league in attendance, usually by a significant margin, every year of its existence, earning accolades for their almost Premier League-like atmosphere at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders were beaten out this year by expansion team Atlanta United, which beat the Sounders by 5,000 fans per game, 48,200 to 43,666, and ended the season by setting the all-time single-game record for a game not associated with some other match. It’s a pair of tremendous feats only slightly undermined by the fact that the two teams play in the only two stadiums in MLS with capacities over 40,000 (and in fact the Sounders can only climb above that mark by taking the tarp off the upper deck), with New York City FC, playing at Yankee Stadium, and Toronto FC being the only other teams with capacities even over 30,000.

The success of Atlanta United, and the rave reviews they’ve earned for their own home atmosphere, should be a repudiation of MLS’ stadium-building strategy, one the Sounders’ success should have already discredited. For years MLS’ strategy for growing the league has been to build “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities in the 18-30,000 range, for the sake of providing a more “intimate atmosphere” compared to the football stadiums that typified the first decade or so of the league’s existence. Seattle and Atlanta almost fell backwards into their huge crowds and rich atmospheres, with soccer being an add-on to their pushes to build new football stadiums, and were it not for the involvement of the owners of their markets’ respective NFL teams, they might have gotten soccer-specific stadiums like everyone else.

The theory behind “soccer-specific stadiums” seemed sound: football stadiums were often cavernous and underutilized for MLS matches, and sizing the stadiums for actual demand seemed like the natural thing to do. Until the season before the Sounders came along, no team had averaged 25,000 fans a game since the league’s inaugural season, so capacities in that range seemed reasonable. But it’s turned out that that may have had more to do with the missteps the pre-Sounders league took in its early days, when it tried to appeal to mainstream soccer fans by adopting timing and other rules more akin to those in other American sports, than with the actual ceiling of soccer in America. Of the bottom 11 teams in attendance, the entire back half of the league, 10 predate the Sounders, and 8 are among the ten teams that existed before the current expansion phase that began in 2005; the only “MLS originals” in the top half of league attendance are the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. NYCFC is the only post-Sounders franchise whose attendance is below 90% of capacity, out of nine teams to fall below that mark; by contrast, only three of the pre-2005 “MLS originals” have average attendance over 90% of capacity, two of which, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City, happen to have two of the three smallest stadiums in the league (and San Jose returned to the league in 2008 after the original team moved to Houston, while SKC is the result of what’s considered one of the most successful team rebrands in the league’s history). The uphill struggle facing the “originals” is such that the Columbus Crew, whose market has a soccer fanbase so strong that it is traditionally chosen to host the national team’s home matches against Mexico in World Cup qualifying, is seeing their owner threatening to move the team to Austin if they can’t get a new stadium – to replace the one for which the term “soccer-specific stadium” was coined in the first place.

We have empirical evidence that at least two franchises are playing in stadiums smaller than they could be. Despite multiple expansions, the Portland Timbers’ average attendance has been at or above Providence Park’s capacity every year of their existence (another expansion is set to add about 4,000 seats), but the real wasted opportunity has involved Orlando City SC. That team played two full seasons at Camping World Stadium, with average attendance in the second season being 31,324, but still went ahead with building Orlando City Stadium with a capacity of 25,500, which fans filled at a 98% clip this past season. The same goes for Minnesota United, who in this inaugural season averaged 20,538 fans at TCF Bank Stadium, but is building a stadium seating only 19,400 – after MLS rejected a competing proposal for a Minnesota franchise that would have had the team playing at the Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. I could understand, to some extent, artificially limiting capacities to create a condition of scarcity and sell tickets for more, and the fact that Portland is the only team selling out their stadium quite so consistently could be used to make an argument that their stadium is the only one that really needs to get significantly bigger (along with San Jose and Kansas City). But unlike Seattle, Atlanta isn’t really the sort of market that comes to mind as a truly soccer-crazy market; after all, MLS was understandably hesitant about returning to the Southeast after the two Florida teams it had in its early days became the only two MLS teams ever to be contracted, and given its demographics Florida should in theory have more soccer fans than Atlanta, a city that, fair or not, has a reputation for being a frontrunning melting pot with little in the way of truly passionate fanbases for its teams. What other cities might have developed fanbases and gameday cultures on par with Seattle and Atlanta but never got the chance?

There’s no reason for any post-2009 franchise not to replicate the success seen by Seattle and now Atlanta, no reason why every one of them shouldn’t have the sort of gameday atmosphere seen in those two cities. It doesn’t take playing in an NFL stadium in every city; only building soccer-specific stadiums with larger capacities over 30,000. That may seem like a lofty goal for American soccer; the Premier League’s median stadium capacity is around 32,000. But to accept less is not merely to accept that MLS will never grow bigger than it is today; it is to accept that it would never grow bigger than it was before the recent boom in soccer’s popularity. Yet no stadium being built or proposed has a larger capacity than 25,000, including those proposed by the two most likely expansion franchises in Sacramento and Cincinnati (though Nashville seems to be moving down the fast track to a 27,500-seat stadium). Commissioner Don Garber has signaled his willingness to accept viable proposals for larger stadiums, but for now the thinking seems to be, go soccer-specific with capacities in the 20,000 range, or go bust. But if MLS is truly interested in growing the sport in America and helping it reach its full potential, not just keeping up the appearance of it, it needs to be willing to dream big – and that means letting its teams build the soccer stadiums of the future, not the past.

For Fans of Lesser Sports Properties, the Party is Over

Back when I was posting more regularly about the sports TV wars – in part because the wars themselves were burning brighter and the stakes seemed higher – a point I routinely made was that, as good as the wars would be for the largest, most popular entities with content that could attract large audiences to sports networks, they would be an absolute boon to lesser entities that might not otherwise attract much of an audience at all, or even enough to justify their existence, as the glut of sports networks looked for properties to fill out the rest of their time. Truly tiny leagues and conferences didn’t see much of a bump from the wars (a TV deal with CBS Sports Network only kept the UFL afloat for an additional half season) but lower-mid-tier leagues, the sort that could attract audiences approaching a million on broadcast and regularly top several hundred thousand on networks the size of FS1 and NBCSN, saw their visibility vastly increased. As I explained in my book The Game to Show the Games (and as expanded upon here previously) no sport benefited from the glut of sports networks more than soccer, even before the sports TV wars properly became a thing, as a veritable soccer boom enveloped English-speaking America driven in large measure by coverage of the English Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel and its predecessor Fox Sports World, driving NBC to not only break the bank for Premier League rights but to make it as much of a tentpole for NBCSN as the NHL.

If no sport benefited more than soccer from the sports TV boom, no single deal demonstrated the power of TV to elevate a sport more than the Premier League’s deal with NBC. NBC’s high-quality coverage, semi-regular games on broadcast television, and dizzying array of games on NBCSN only scratched the surface of what NBC would do for the Premier League in America. Perhaps more remarkable was NBC’s decision to place all the games it couldn’t fit on its linear networks on an array of “Extra Time” channels and available for streaming for any subscriber to a cable package that included NBCSN. American viewers could watch every single Premier League game live, something people in England itself couldn’t say, if only because the Premier League contracts there were arranged to protect gate revenues, especially at lower-tier clubs.

This week, NBC announced that those games not airing on NBC’s linear services would now be available on a “Premier League Pass” subscription service, no longer free with NBCSN. The headline on Re/code touting this deal focused on the “no cable subscription required” aspect of the service, which is a bit disingenuous considering games on NBC’s cable networks aren’t part of the deal, but not really any different from people who get ESPN3 from their Internet provider (or who sign up for ESPN’s long-delayed direct-to-consumer offering) and get to watch mid-major college sports and less popular events without access to ESPN’s actual linear networks. Despite its uselessness to cord-cutters, though, I was surprised to see headlines on more soccer-focused sites bemoaning what a big step backward this was for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, with Vice Sports going so far as to claim that the move of what it admits is “the crappiest third” of Premier League games to a premium service amounts to NBC “kill[ing] America’s EPL Golden Age“.

Certainly for Premier League fans used to signing up for the cable bundle, this is a huge step backwards. $50 is a relatively steep price, though for an entire season of Premier League games it compares favorably to American sports leagues’ pay-per-view/out-of-market/streaming services, which often top $100. And it’s not like Premier League fans can save money by just signing up for Premier League Pass, since again, it doesn’t include games on NBC’s linear networks. But it’s hard to declare the loss of the least interesting, most perfunctory matchups, that were already consigned to streaming and overflow channels, as completely undermining the visibility and value of the Premier League on American television, especially since given the ongoing shifts in the media landscape, a move like this may have been inevitable. Even if Extra Time wasn’t really “too good to be true” even at the time, setting aside specialized channels and propping up the cable bundle even more was becoming difficult to justify. With Premier League Pass, NBC is pivoting towards the sports distribution system of the future, one that more specifically targets fans of various sports, that sports networks in general will have to pivot towards.

As such, I’m not sure I agree with Richard Deitsch that this is entirely about monetizing a more expensive Premier League rights deal; if so it would raise the question of whether the deal was really worth it to begin with. I think there’s a bigger picture to look at here. Going back to its days as Versus, NBCSN has staked its territory around providing comprehensive coverage of sports that might get shorter shrift at ESPN or Fox, and that’s a territory that lends itself well to providing services oriented directly at those niche sports fans. The NBC Sports Gold service already sells access to many of those niche sports bundled together for up to $70 a year, but depending on how many butthurt Premier League fans (especially those that have attached themselves to teams further down the table) swallow their pride and pony up, Premier League Pass could easily make them more money. I could easily see NBC as laying the groundwork for the day it may ultimately have to shutter NBCSN in its current form and fold many of its rights into networks like CNBC or USA as the cable bundle finally utterly collapses, folding together many of its mid-to-lower tier rights into a direct-to-consumer offering targeted at the niche sports fans NBCSN serves today. I may have felt Fox was better positioned to run down ESPN than anyone else (certainly Fox themselves did) before it turned out Fox didn’t quite have the quality of rights to convince people to turn to FS1 on a regular basis, and I’m skeptical that anyone other than ESPN will survive the collapse of the cable bundle and shift to Internet streaming, but NBC may be better positioned than any of the alternatives to pivot to marketing a national service directly to the consumer, offering a simple value proposition to fans of niche sports (ignoring the question of the fate of local sports and what it would mean for Fox and NBC). With Premier League Pass, NBC is building the groundwork and subscriber base for whenever the day may come when NBC Sports Gold has to become its main offering to sports fans.

Ultimately, I think the effect of the Internet will be to collapse any intermediate distinctions preventing a step down from the ESPN level directly to pure streaming, with the only distinction being between the resources and quality poured into that streaming, with the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and potentially Google on the high end, down to lesser offerings oriented towards more niche audiences like Premier League Pass, all the way down to free streams where there’s no room for monetization and no budget for any but the most rudimentary setups at all. For the truly tiniest leagues, I’m already seeing signs of streaming, of various degrees of monetization, being a boon to them; when the number of channels is effectively limitless, there’s little reason not to put up a stream of every game you have so long as you have the resources for it, especially when it comes to leagues popular in their home countries that just need to export their feeds to the States. But for these mid-tier leagues that have become used to comprehensive coverage subsidized by non-sports fans who continue to subscribe to the cable bundle, the party is over. Even if you believe that the most apocalyptic scenarios still involve the vast majority of Americans continuing to subscribe to some sort of comprehensive cable bundle for the foreseeable future, there’s still clear evidence of the fear of cord-cutting and sports-free packages driving sports networks to reduce their investment in mid-tier properties that don’t drive enough viewership and subscriptions on their own to justify the level of expense the cable bundle has inflated their perceived value to. Services like Premier League Pass are the first sign of sports networks sending a message that it’s time for sports fans to pay more of their fair share of the boom of sports television that has erupted in recent years.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How European Soccer Conquered America (With Fox’s Help)

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.

After Sepp Blatter: FIFA Reform, or Western Imperialism? (Or Neither?)

What can Vladimir Putin and Jeremy Schaap tell us about the just-concluded Sepp Blatter era at FIFA?

As the ongoing corruption scandal came to a head last week with the indictments of several prominent FIFA officials, something came to light that put Blatter’s reign in a new perspective for me, which I first learned from a clip from Schaap’s E:60 profile of the FIFA grand poobah: under FIFA’s rules, every nation gets one vote in all decisions, no matter their relative qualifications. The United States has exactly the same number of votes as Brazil, Germany, China, or Montserrat. So while you might think of UEFA as the strongest, most powerful of soccer’s continental confederations on the pitch, when it comes to decisions in the FIFA boardroom UEFA can only bring its 53 member organizations’ votes, roughly a quarter of FIFA’s 209 total – a not insignificant number, but small enough that once Africa and Asia’s confederations reaffirmed their support of Blatter, his reelection last week was all but assured no matter how much UEFA, its members, and the US condemned him.

This provides a glimpse into the source of Blatter’s power: by rallying the many small nations across the world to his cause. It’s easy to see why FIFA works this way: to make sure rich, well-heeled nations can’t push smaller, poorer nations out of their way in order to get their way. In theory, this structure makes sure FIFA works for the good of the game across the entire world, not just working for the interests of the most powerful nations. Blatter’s reign saw the World Cup held in South Africa, the first World Cup to be held anywhere on the African continent, and a vote to hold the World Cup in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, and Blatter has cited the growth of and investment into the game in smaller, poorer nations as one of the legacies of his reign. Most of the criticism of Blatter, FIFA, and the Qatar vote has come from the United States (whose own bid for the 2022 World Cup lost to Qatar), Europe, and other heavily Western-influenced nations (Australia was the other 2022 front-runner). If you were to try to defend FIFA and Blatter’s reign, this is where you would start: with the notion that this entire corruption sting, call for reform, and call to strip the 2022 World Cup from Qatar (and implicitly give it to the US or Australia) is an effort by the Western powers to grab power away from the poorer, smaller nations of the world, take the World Cup away from a small Middle Eastern nation, and appropriate more power (and another World Cup) for white people in the most powerful nations. Indeed, that’s pretty much how most of those that have attempted to defend Blatter, including Putin, have done so.

Of course, while the theory behind a “one-nation-one-vote” structure is to provide more power to smaller nations and prevent the bigger ones from muscling their way into getting their way, the reality is that it just gives a lot of power to people from nations with not a lot of resources, realistically not much to gain through legitimate channels, and (as Putin’s defense of Blatter points to) not much respect for democracy and the rule of law. That’s a recipe for a disproportionate number of those nations’ representatives to use their position to line their own pockets with little regard for the good of the game or of FIFA. Indeed most of last week’s indictments appear to have fallen on representatives of small nations in the Caribbean and South America. Qatar is hardly a poor, underprivileged nation; the general consensus in the Western nations seems to be that Qatar won the World Cup by slathering FIFA members in its considerable oil money. Rather than neuter the power of nations with the most money, FIFA’s governance structure simply gives the power to the nations with the most money and the least inhibitions against spending it illegitimately, by giving too much power to people most likely to resort to corruption.

But if FIFA’s corruption is baked into its governance structure, the prospects for reform might be dim. There’s no guarantee that when new elections for a new FIFA president are held later this year that the small nations won’t rally around a candidate that promises them business as usual (possibly while making enough public commitments to reform to shut up the critics), and it’s not clear they’re convinced enough of the need for reform that they’ll allow any reforms to go forward that might blunt their own power. Sepp Blatter may be just a symptom of a more systemic problem, and the resignation of one president means little when it comes to the thorny issue of cleaning up that problem.

2014 FIFA World Cup Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the numbers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in English and Spanish as far as I can determine given the severe constraints I had to work with. I complained last year about SportsBusiness Daily mysteriously completely dropping Univision’s numbers for the FIFA Confederations Cup, but this year the problem was much worse, because it’s the World Cup it dropped, including many of the most popular matches in the history of American Spanish-language television. Here’s hoping this madness ends with Telemundo taking over the World Cup. At least I managed to get enough numbers for the knockout stages that I’m fairly confident I have data for every knockout stage match over 3 million on Univision, but the group stage, especially the later part of the group stage, is more problematic; I have to assume I have every match with an audience over 5 million, but that might be a dicey proposition. Even the matches I do have I don’t have anything beyond the ten-thousands place, and I only have that much because of Sports Media Watch’s year-end ratings wrapup and doing the math based on the ESPN match-portion numbers.

Oh yes, that. ESPN wanted any mention of records or the actual ratings each match received to refer to the “match portion” of each window starting at the top of the hour, excluding the 30-minute pregame show, which SportsBusiness Daily and Sports Media Watch obliged them, but the official time slots according to Nielsen, which are thus more widely available from sites like Awful Announcing or TVbytheNumbers, include the pregame show, which could be as long as an hour if the United States was playing. To make matters worse, ESPN’s press releases tended to put out those match-portion numbers based on the fast nationals I don’t trust, which SMW ended up going with. So I had to hope each match finished in the top ten sports events on cable for the week to show up on SBD, and if it didn’t, hope ESPN reported numbers in its press releases or SMW found them out in other ways, or be stuck with the full-window numbers. And because the World Cup coincided with Douglas “Son of the Bronx” Pucci’s early days at Awful Announcing, when he was just posting top tens for each network with anything else being by request only, if a match was particularly lightly viewed I couldn’t even count on that.

Numbers for matches on ABC, as well as most ESPN match portions not marked as being fast nationals, from SportsBusiness Daily or Sports Media Watch. Other ESPN match portions from ESPN press releases. Numbers for ESPN full windows from Awful Announcing (household ratings) and TVbytheNumbers (18-49 ratings). Numbers in Spanish from Univision press releases and Sports Media Watch.

Read more2014 FIFA World Cup Ratings Wrap-Up

2013 Soccer Ratings Wrap-Up

As the World Cup starts to rev into gear, here are the top 10 most-viewed soccer matches of 2013 in both English and Spanish as well as regardless of language.

The World Cup qualifying matches between the United States and Mexico were two of the three most-watched soccer matches in 2013 across languages, bracketing the FIFA Confederations Cup final between Brazil and Spain, which was the most popular match not to involve either the American or Mexican national teams for both languages. The match at Stadio Azteca was the second-most popular match in each individual language and the most popular overall; the Confederations Cup final was fourth-most popular in English and fifth in Spanish. The CONCACAF Gold Cup final between the USA and Panama likely edged out the Costa Rica-Mexico qualifying match as the most popular match to involve only one of the two national teams, with the caveat that the Costa Rica-Mexico numbers include only viewership on Telemundo; both matches were the most popular in their respective languages, though it is not conclusive whether the Gold Cup final beat Mexico-USA in English. The Liga MX final between Club America and Cruz Azul was the most popular club match (and the third-most popular match in Spanish overall), while the UEFA Champions League final was the most popular club match in English.

Numbers for matches on broadcast from Sports Business Daily. Numbers for FIFA Confederations Cup matches, or any other match where household ratings are not available, on Univision and UniMas from Univision press releases. 18-49 numbers for Telemundo broadcasts from Telemundo press releases. Numbers for matches on ESPN networks from Son of the Bronx. 18-49 numbers for English-language broadcasts, when available, from TVbytheNumbers or The Futon Critic. Numbers for matches on Fox Soccer are not available.

Top 25 Most-Viewed Soccer Matches of 2013 Regardless of Language

  Vwr (mil) HH 18-49 Time Net
1 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. United States



3/26 10:30 PM

2 FIFA Confederations Cup Final:
Brazil v. Spain



6/30 6:00 PM

3 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Mexico




9/10 8:00 PM

4 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final:
United States v. Panama


7/28 3:30 PM

5 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Costa Rica v. Mexico



10/15 9:15 PM

6 Liga MX Final:
Club America v. Cruz Azul



5/26 8:50 PM

7 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Panama



10/11 9:00 PM

8 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. New Zealand




11/13 3:15 PM

9 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Mexico v. Italy


6/16 2:45 PM

10 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Honduras



9/6 9:15 PM

11 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
New Zealand v. Mexico




11/20 1:00 AM

12 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Jamaica



2/6 9:15 PM

13 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 2




12/15 6:50 PM

14 CONCACAF Gold Cup Semifinal:
Panama v. Mexico



7/24 9:36 PM

15 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Mexico v. Costa Rica




6/11 7:54 PM

16 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Brazil v. Mexico


6/19 3:00 PM

17 FIFA Confederations Cup:
Japan v. Mexico


6/22 3:00 PM

18 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Jamaica v. Mexico




6/4 9:15 PM

19 Liga MX Apertura Final:
Leon v. Club America, Leg 1





20 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Panama




6/11 10:00 PM

21 CONCACAF Gold Cup Quarterfinal:
Mexico v. Trinidad and Tobago



7/20 6:11 PM

22 FIFA Confederations Cup Third Place:
Uruguay v. Italy


6/30 12:00 PM

23 Liga MX: CD Guadalajara v. Club America



3/31 9:55 PM

24 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Panama v. Mexico




6/9 9:45 PM

25 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
United States v. Honduras



6/18 8:30 PM


Read more2013 Soccer Ratings Wrap-Up

The Premier League is headed to NBC

It’s official: we are in the middle of a massive paradigm shift in the world of sports, and especially in how soccer is consumed in this country. Don’t believe me? With one exception that I bet won’t stay an exception for long, the top European leagues are now aligned with a network that didn’t exist a few months ago and an entity that didn’t have any soccer presence outside the Olympics a year ago.

I was somewhat shocked to find NBC bidding so aggressively that the Premier League reportedly told the incumbents, Fox and ESPN, late last week not to even bother showing up with a bid. Without the World Cup, with MLS for only two more years, with Formula 1 recently added to its portfolio, and with its dreams of competing with ESPN looking to be on life support, I didn’t think NBC had much motivation to make an aggressive bid for the Premier League.

In the end, though, after reading the announcement, I have to figure the deciding factor was the same one I thought might land NBC the World Cup but didn’t: NBC’s Spanish language presence. I get the impression the Premier League was never going to split up the English and Spanish language rights the way FIFA was willing to, and as a result, I have to imagine a big chunk of NBC’s bid – triple what Fox and ESPN’s joint bid was – was more to land Premier League rights for Telemundo and mun2 than for NBC Sports Network. Compared to most soccer rights, the Premier League has a disproportionately English-language audience in the United States, but it is still one of the two best soccer leagues in the world with multiple major teams, which I have to imagine still makes it a huge draw for Spanish-language eyeballs as well.

It sounds like NBC could make a concerted effort to put games on as many platforms as possible on a regular basis, including substantially more live games on the broadcast network than Fox was willing to show (maybe even involving teams not named Manchester United!), as well as CNBC, MSNBC, and maybe even Bravo or on a pay-per-view package, which could help resolve any Formula 1 conflicts; I can’t help but wonder whether Universal Sports might end up being an option, and whether or not it is could hint at the long-term plans for that network. (I’m very surprised to see USA even be brought up after NBC semi-publicly dropped all non-dog show sports programming from that network. Whether or not Comcast SportsNet might pick up Premier League games would be a very interesting possibility, fraught with plenty of political implications.)

I think this sends a pointed message that NBC has every intent on taking over the unified MLS package when that comes up in another year, possibly in both English and Spanish as well – although the Premier League deal will only coincide with a unified MLS deal for another year. As for the other contenders, while ESPN made noise about its continued commitment to soccer after losing the World Cup, I don’t see them as very motivated at all to hang on to MLS and US National Team rights, certainly compared to NBC and Fox; certainly this, combined with the earlier loss of UK Premier League rights, must make it a lot harder for them to hold on to Ian Darke and other English soccer announcers after the 2014 World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest impact, though, might be to Fox. What little chance there might have been that Fox wasn’t going to launch an all-sports network is gone now, and in all likelihood it’s going to launch at least two. Fox Soccer has lost almost all the programming that was worth it maintaining a separate identity; while Fox still has the Champions League and World Cup, they don’t do nearly as much to support the network as the Premier League did, and could easily survive the transition to a system of all-sports networks, while whatever else is left of Fox’s soccer programming might be kindly described as scraps. There is no reason for Fox to maintain Fox Soccer as a shell of its former self, and I fully expect Fox to be running at least one all-sports network by August 2013.

Without knowing how much beIN Sport bid, I have no way of knowing how much of this is NBC overbidding or ESPN and Fox underbidding. If NBC overbid, I have to wonder what their priorities are, as well as their grasp of the big picture given the F1 problem; some of Mark Lazarus’ comments in the SI interview linked above suggest NBC has become resigned to its third-place status and wants to carve a niche for the NBC Sports Network in the international sports scene (which again makes me wonder what the role of Universal Sports might be long-term). But if ESPN and Fox underbid, that would tell me that Fox may have already set its sights on transitioning Fox Soccer away from its soccer identity and was more concerned about dumping sport-specific network rights F1-style than anything else, even if the Premier League would have been valuable enough programming to add considerably to the value of a general Fox Sports network. Fox may have driven the final nail in Fox Soccer’s coffin itself.

Sport-Specific Networks
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