ESPN Seeking English Premier League TV Rights. Do They Deserve Them?

On September 15th, there was an article on—click here to read it—about Fox Soccer Channel getting rated by Nielsen starting in October. The article quickly moved to ESPN trying to acquire the TV rights to the English Premier League.
Now the first part of that article is not that exciting. Yet the second part is something to talk and write about.

At first thought, ESPN and EPL seem like a match made in heaven. The most popular, and largest, sports network in the US and the most popular soccer league in the world in High Definition would be an amazing way to watch the beautiful game on a Saturday morning (the MLS looks great on ESPN2 HD, even if the play is so-so).

To be able to see Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool (and all the other stars of the league) play, would be a great tool to elevate the game to the masses in the US.

It might have the “flash in a pan” feel of David Beckham, but would most likely have a greater long-term effect. It would be the first time ESPN has added a solely international league to its regular schedule. They have showed the World Cup, the Ryder Cup in golf, and other World Championships, but never had an international league with only international teams. That alone is a great reason to sign the contract.

But I am not convinced that ESPN deserves it and FCS deserves to have it taken away. Here is a quick look at some of my issues.

1. FSC is Soccer ONLY! ESPN is not.
Let me first make this statement. This whole “issue” is void if ESPN comes out with an ESPN Soccer Channel.

Imagine, waking up Saturday morning. Sitting in your chair or favorite spot on the couch. Eating breakfast, showered or not. The remote in your hand and Manchester United playing on EPSN in HD.

It would be fantastic to see match-ups of the some of the best clubs in the world. It would be pure soccer bliss. Until college football comes on and then what happens on Sunday?  NFL preview shows. They start early and run until kick-off. We would miss out on matches. Now, maybe the EPL would rework the schedule to have less appealing games on Sunday and then not be televised. But, I watch those games for a reason. To see those unfamiliar faces, to see those players who will be bought by the big boys in the next transfer window and then play on Saturday. The EPL season is very long and could find more time filling the holes between football, basketball, and baseball. But that is not good enough.

ESPN is spread out in so many directions that you will never get the coverage you do with FSC, at least not in its current situation. An “ESPN Soccer” channel might evolve down the road. But as it stands right now EPSN has five major channels; ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPN Classic, and now ESPN U.

At any moment you can have any sport on any network. ESPN U focuses on college athletics; ESPN Classic relives great games, players and events, new and older. ESPN News has continuous Sport Center type programming. So that leaves ESPN and ESPN2.

Depending on the time of year, soccer will be hard pressed to find time out side of the Saturday morning slot and occasional UEFA Champions League game on ESPN Classic. There will be converge, but not like that of FCS.

2. Knowing the Game.
I know this is going to come off extremely picky of the “sports leader”, but it is an example of a bigger issue that will be there from the beginning.

I have watched two very recent broadcast of Sportscenter and every time a soccer player was mentioned, the name was said wrong. Two of the biggest names in all of soccer, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, were pronounced wrong. Gerrard was turn into Steven “Jared” and Lampard was “Lamp-ard”. Even my wife, who knows very little of soccer, laughed. AND THOSE ARE THE EASY NAMES!

What will happen during the highlights of Arsenal versus Chelsea? What with players like; Manuel Almunia, Bacary Sagna, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, Petr Cech, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Franco Matias Di Santo and Didier Drogba?

Granted, in the games ESPN will have Tommy Smyth, Julie Foudy, and Allen Hopkins to keep the names and soccer termanolgy straight, but the Sportscenter folk are going to need to learn quickly.

If you are in a job interview and you mess up the company’s name, you probably are not going to be offered the job. ESPN needs to build a resume that shows interest and expertise in understanding soccer, not just showing a couple games and talking about Beckham.

They will use their experts in the beginning to cover the ignorance factor, but the whole network has to show it is as much about soccer as any other sport. ESPN has to show it wants the EPL, because the EPL is watching.

3. What will happen to FSC?
The EPL is only one league, but it is the biggest league with the easiest crossover to the US audience. But what does FSC do to fill the void? Maybe they will get some of the games not including the “Big Four” (maybe now five?). That will depend on the contract between ESPN and EPL.

Meaning FSC may not be able to show any games.

Typically on a weekend you can see four to five EPL matches, plus another three to four from Serie A in Italy, and then a couple from either Spain or Argentina. But the majority of non-match programming is about the English; Sky Sports broadcasts, match day preview and review shows, English fan broadcasts, and various other shows.

So much of their programming is based on the fans interest of players in the EPL and every aspect of those clubs. What then happens when you take those matches away?

While I love to watch them both, in my opinion Serie A and La Liga are nowhere near as popular in the US as EPL. So filling those games slots with matches from Italy and Spain probably won’t be a saving grace. But adding other top-tier soccer by way of the German League Bundesliga and French League Ligue1 could help bring new viewers and maybe, just maybe, retain some of the soccer die-hards.

While my interest in following soccer has been rather a new venture, I do have great respect for what FSC has been able to do in bring soccer of every sort to the masses. They know the game, the history, the rivalries, and most importantly they understand the importance of soccer in other countries.

ESPN has to show that it cares enough to be able to meet the needs of us soccer folk who wake-up Saturday to catch the early game and then watch Fox Football Fone-In to get the latest news and rumors.

ESPN has to learn to understand the energy, excitement, and passion of a game that has long been seen as a lesser sport to American football. As much as American football is culture in the US, soccer is even more so everywhere else in the world.

Good Luck ESPN. Do well by the fans and the sport we love.


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