By Zak Shaikh 06-09-2012
Following the stateside popularity of the Olympics, Zak Shaikh looks across the pond at the US at an English sport that appears to be having a serious impact in America.
Soccer has a global reach unrivaled by any other sport, yet the one country it has traditionally struggled in is the sports-mad USA. However, looking at recent trends, this anomaly might be changing. The US is actually embracing soccer like it never has before.
This summer’s European Championships drew record figures for ESPN. The Euro 2012 final between Spain and Italy drew an average US audience of 4.07 million viewers, up 8% from the 3.67 million who tuned in the Euro 2008 final (which was itself a record for European Championship coverage in the US at the time). But bear in mind that this year’s final was shown on ESPN, a cable channel, while the 2008 final was shown on ABC and the figures are even more impressive.
Furthermore, ESPN’s Spanish service, ESPN Deportes – which is aimed at Americans whose first language is Spanish – secured 1.12 million viewers, the biggest telecast in the history of the network. That means over five million Americans watched the final live, beating audience levels for the Stanley Cup finals (which avgeraged 2.99 million). Ice hockey has often been regarded as the number four sport in the US after baseball, basketball and American football. But that perception must surely be changing now.
The whole of the Euros represented a significant increase in viewership with ESPN seeing an average rise of 51% across the whole tournament compared to four years ago. The knock-out stages had viewership closer to Major League Baseball games.
Soccer’s growth in the US is also evident from viewing figures for the English Premier League, which is primarily available on Fox Sports and Fox Soccer channels. Last season saw record viewing. One game, between Chelsea and Liverpool, broke the record for Premier League ratings in the US, with 1.67 million viewers – and this was a tape-delayed transmission in the morning (Pacific) or early afternoon (Eastern). In the current season, Fox is likely to air more games on the main Fox channel (rather than just the sports channel), so expect the audience figures to continue rising.
There are sceptics who think this is just a phase – that soccer has been pushed before in America (the ’70s and the ’90s) and it will fail because American fans are resistant to the sport. But this time the story really is different.
Firstly, from the advertisers’ perspective, there is real value being assigned to the soccer viewer. The 2011 Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United aired on a Saturday at 11.30/14.30 on Fox; the network charged between US$285,000 and US$400,000 for a 30-second commercial, and large sponsors like Heineken were rumored to have paid as much as US$40m for advertising and sponsorship – for a two-hour telecast that garnered 2.6 million viewers. The importance of the US-based soccer fan is not lost on the teams either, with Chelsea and Tottenham both making tours of the country in their limited pre-season time.
Secondly, the growth of the Hispanic population in the US appears to be having some effect. Soccer is the number one sport in Central and South America, so American Latinos bring with them a strong soccer tradition. This is highlighted somewhat by the local markets where the Euro 2012 final prospered most. Miami, LA, New York, Austin and San Diego made up five of the top six markets for total viewers of the final; all have relatively large Hispanic populations.
Thirdly, the availability of soccer on TV is far better than it has ever been. Specialist digital channels on cable and satellite platforms have allowed a loyal fanbase to develop for the English and, to a lesser extent, the Spanish and Italian leagues. The remarkable strategy that Fox executed on the final day of the Premier League season, with nine of the 10 matches available live on a Fox-owned channel, is a case in point. The other game was shown live on ESPN.
Finally, it’s the narrative itself. While the business and distribution models are important, the changing story of soccer in the US is perhaps the biggest factor to contribute towards its rise in popularity. Back in the ’70s, the Americans were given a domestic league full of old pros (like Pele and George Best) whose best days were clearly behind them. In any story, no one wants to watch weak protagonists. And so watching the powers of Pele et al… on the wane wasn’t the most appealing sight. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a dominant league (like the NBA in basketball) for global soccer fans to swarm to… That is, until the advent of the English Premier League in 1992.
Within a decade, the world’s top players were playing in this one league (currently, over 50% of the players in the English league are not English). The Cantonas, Beckhams and Ronaldos could all be seen, and they were playing their best games. Moreover, it is the only league where the team at the bottom can beat the team at the top (last season the bottom-placed Blackburn Rovers beat title-winning Manchester City). So you have a league with real talent being displayed combined with underdogs occasionally upsetting the odds and winning – good ingredients for a compelling story.
The foreign contingent of players has also enticed fans all over the world to support players from their own country. I’ve met many an American soccer fan who supports Fulham, most probably because of their connection with excellent US players such as Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride. I grew up in London and met fewer Fulham fans there than in LA.
Clearly, there is something compelling about the English league that makes it popular all over the world. These ingredients are starting to impact American viewers. And let’s face it, if 24.3 million Americans were willing to watch the World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands in 2010, the potential for the English Premier League is enormous.