Thoughts on American TV Ratings: FSC and ESPN on Different Courses

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Fox Soccer Channel released its Nielson ratings for the public this week, and it showed growth in almost all areas of football coverage on the network. The biggest winner was the Barclays Premier League and other English theme/styled programs such as Sky Sports News and Fox Football Phone-In.

The network’s Major League Soccer ratings are up from last year (truthfully, they couldn’t get much worse than they were last year) but Serie A continues to struggle on FSC and the network has stated it has little interest in building the brands of WPS, USL or College Soccer, viewing the American leagues as filler programming.

Fox Soccer Channel, perhaps wisely from a business perspective has decided to build its brand almost exclusively around English Football. Not European Football (even though the network now has UEFA Champions League rights) but around anything English. The network has made little outward effort to build the brand recognitions of Serie A, MLS, Argentine Football, WPS, USL, etc when compared to the Premier League.

FSC’s tact stands in direct contrast to ESPN. This is more likely than not, the difference between a subscriber based channel, and a mainstream sports one. ESPN has worked tirelessly to increase MLS’  brand, and as I wrote on Monday, the league now enjoys higher ratings on the network than anytime since the glory days (at least from a TV ratings standpoint) of the late 1990s. MLS is currently beating the Premier League on ESPN, a mainstream sports channel, where casual fans gravitate. The viewership for USMNT matches on ESPN are even higher than that of MLS, and rival those of the Champions League knock out stages, when ESPN had the rights to UEFA’s signature club competition.

In other words, the potential market for American oriented football is bigger than for British themed Football. ESPN has helped to make the game more accessible in this country, and the increase in ratings reflect their hard work.

However, FSC cannot totally be faulted for its approach. It is after all the passionate supporters of the sport that subscribe to the channel, paying an extra $10-$15 a month on satellite and cable bills to receive FSC. Those fans are more oriented towards European Football than towards MLS, WPS, USL or College Soccer. However, FSC would be wise to build its Serie A brand more aggressively and to promote Champions League matches that include non English or Big two La Liga teams.

Given this growth in numbers on both channels, ESPN’s decision to hire Martin Tyler and possibly re-hire Andy Gray to present World Cup 2010 has to be questioned.

It is accessibility and understanding of the sport that the casual American fan is looking for. While Dave O’Brien was pillaged by those seeking British style commentary on American TV, the ratings for World cup 2006 were substantially higher than ESPN had projected, and the ratings for MLS in 2007 were higher than for MLS in 2006 and 8in 2008 when O’Brien was not part of the network package (except for MLS Cup in 2006.)

British style commentary isn’t going to sell masses on the sport in the US. While Martin Tyler is a top rate professional, Andy Gray proved in Euro 2008 he is not. A former playing great, Gray showed little understanding and dare I say respect for the sport beyond the British Isles and Spain, which after all is a domestic league that his UK employer Sky Sports broadcasts. Gray,  showed a lack of preparation or understanding of the German, Italian and Dutch teams and some of the key players and tactical considerations of those sides.

Andy Gray can be partially excused: he simply  reflected the common British biases against certain national teams and providing a strictly Anglicized window (ironic since Gray is Scottish) on the world. But ESPN was providing coverage for the American market, not the British one.

Going forward, ESPN may want to look at accessibility and growing the sport in its choices of talent, rather than satisfying a small cadre of snobs who will only accept presentation and analysis in a specific, highly anglicized fashion. The continued effort by some in the US Football community to impose a highly English (or in other cases Latino/South European) standard on how the game is conducted and presented in this country is one of the great dangers we face going forward.