ESPN’s La Liga Move: Good For the Future of American Footy

On English language websites today the big news surrounding ESPN is about the network acquiring Setanta’s package to air Premier League matches in the UK. But perhaps bigger news was made stateside as ESPN returned to showing regular European league football for the first time since losing La Liga rights in the early part of this decade. ESPN has acquired 20 La Liga matches to be aired on ESPN 2 next season from GOL TV in addition to many matches for Deportes.

Following the loss of the UEFA Champions League, the premier American sports network was left without any significant club football outside of MLS whose package performs worse for ESPN today than it did 10 years ago. The proliferation of interest in European and Latin football has marginalized ESPN’s MLS package to where it performs poorly by any standard and appeals to little more than a small niche audience.

Fox Soccer has achieved decent ratings for Premier League matches but seems almost embarrassed to cross promote with MLS during PL matches, because of the anglicized nature of FSC’s audience. ESPN on the other hand will likely use it’s La Liga telecasts that are bound to be on Sunday’s to not conflict with the network’s heavy schedule of College Football and College Basketball to promote upcoming MLS and US National Team games.

International Football has performed well for ESPN. World Cup 2006 was an eye opener for the network who had seen ratings for soccer drop steadily since the US disaster at World Cup 1998. ABC stopped showing US National Team matches and MLS ratings continued to struggle.

But with the 2006 World Cup and the Euro 2008, ESPN rediscovered the audience for International Football. Confederations Cup 2009 is performing well and the combination of having strong international sides as well as a US team that has advanced is sure to help the ratings.

One more point on FSC: This summer when the English game is on holiday it is disheartening to see few original programs related to US Soccer. I like USL Breakaways but that is league produced and simply aired on FSC. No original MLS programming exists outside of match telecasts and even worse in a busy summer for the US, we haven’t seen a Center Circle or analysis show in sometime. Instead we are treated to reruns of old English matches and the occasional repeat MLS or USL game.

Perhaps ESPN’s return to the big time of weekly European club football will push FSC for the better.