Last week, in the comments of the wonderful, tag-teamed, f**k-you-Mannix piece, I engaged in a short debate with Mike Georger about the good versus bad of ESPN getting into the business of showing lots of soccer stateside. Such an argument is precipitated on the rumors that ESPN is shuttering its Classic channel and looking to replace it with, possibly, an ESPN3. This new channel would have soccer, and the EPL, as its cornerstone. While I think that such a move would be positive for American soccer viewers, Mike is vociferously against it. This Point/Counterpoint will allow us to make our arguments and allow you to weigh in as well in the comments.
Since I framed the question (and I am right), my point will go up first. I have had the benefit of a couple of extra days to ponder the points, including the Germany-Turkey televised debacle, so please take that into account when reading.
1. ESPN is the pulse of American sports
This goes almost without saying. ESPN has done such a great job of highjacking the American sports psyche that it is almost impossible to follow a sport on TV if ESPN does not show it. Hell, to be honest, you have to try really hard to follow a sport, on TV or not, that ESPN does not show. Some of you would probably be surprised to know that the NHL, ostensibly America’s fourth sports league, crowned a champion last month. Of those that do know that the Stanley Cup wrapped up, I would venture that half of you do not know who won. If it’s not on ESPN, it just doesn’t penetrate into middle America.
It’s a point that Cardillo at That’s on Point has been making for years. If ESPN would just put their muscle behind soccer, it’s coverage in all media would grow exponentially. And that is one great thing that we stand to gain here. If ESPN were to launch a soccer-heavy channel, then more highlights would show on SportsCenter. If the highlights show, then thick-headed sports editors at the nation’s newspapers, whom I believe are generally older than the average American soccer fan (citation needed, I know), would see the increased TV presence and expand soccer coverage within their pages. More coverage in the papers and magazines means more interest in general. It’s a slippery slope argument, yes, and I concede that it’s never going to be a 1:1 ratio as the media fans out, but increased ESPN attention to the sport will definitely see an uptick in American attention in general.
2. What good is more interest if people don’t get to watch?
So, the European Championships wrap up tomorrow, and ESPN will be mostly out of the soccer business until the Champions League starts back up in the fall. Undoubtedly, and I have experienced it personally, there is more interest from the average American in soccer than there was before the Champions League final and this fine past three weeks of European play. So, where do the fans go now? There is MLS to watch on ESPN2, but that level of play is not the same.
I watch television is two places: home and work. At home, I have cable (Charter), and at work we have DirecTV. Both systems have GolTV and FSC available, and DirecTV has Setanta available as well. Both systems require extra fees to access these channels. It is safe to say that a good portion of America which is newly interested in soccer do not have these channels already available, and, if they did, do not know where they are amongst the 300 other channels on air. The point being, that if ESPN, or an ESPN3, were the channel where they could sate their newly acquired soccer hunger, then they will continue to do so. But if, say, my father-in-law wanted to watch soccer, he’s not paying for an extra tier of service to do so.
3. ESPN already has an international presence
This is by far the most speculative point that I will make. The theory is that ESPN is already set up worldwide. According to this (.pdf alert), ESPN reaches over 175 countries with programming broken up into over 20 different regionalized and specialized channels. These channels all have local talent which are contracted with ESPN. If, say, ESPN were to get the EPL rights for America in 2010, then ESPN would already have people in England who could do the job of announcing the game. This would get rid of two things, possibly. First, it would get rid of the dreaded broom closet which ESPN’s American-based soccer announcers are said to commentate out of. They watch the feed the same as we do, and talk about the game. As anyone who has ever paid close attention to Tommy Smyth can attest, it is not the best situation. When something happens, Tommy will speculate endlessly on it without being able to pull up a replay directly. If there is a card, the team has to wait for a feed replay to show them what it is. Quite simply, it’s not the best way to call a game.
Secondly, if ESPN were to actually have on-site announcers for the EPL, then we could avoid a situation like we had on Wednesday, where the announcing team saw just as little of the action on the pitch as the viewers. Other nations, which had their announcers on site, were able to set up mobile audio feeds to continue to call the game when the screen blacked out. ESPN could have done the same with on-site commentators.
Of course, this depends on the amount of money ESPN is willing to spend after outbidding any of its USA rights rivals. If they cheap it up, then we will hear more of the broom closet, unfortunately.
4. HDTV, plain and simple
As anyone who has been so lucky as to watch the Euro games on HDTV can attest, it is lovely. ESPN is apparently willing to upgrade its channels, if there is HD programming to go on there. Currently, of course, the space occupied by ESPN Classic is not HD. But there would be very little, if any, HD programming to put on there. Sadly, American Gladiators was not ahead of its time in that way. But, dammit, if ESPN News is going to be in HD now, then why wouldn’t an upgraded ESPN3?
5. $$$$ for American soccer
In two ways
First, there is the money that ESPN is paying to US Soccer for the rather newly-acquired rights to all USMNT games. No longer will we see the games split between ESPN and FSC, it’s all ESPN’s bag now.
Secondly, these games on ESPN will bring a greater audience, an audience willing to spend money on whatever junk they see. It’s all about commercialization here. A wider audience means more ad revenue. More as revenue means a greater push by the channel. A greater push by the channel means more people willing to watch and buy those replica jerseys the American sports fan likes so much. Throw is a scarf or a hat as well, and that’s jingle that is music to Guus Hiddink’s ears. And anything that can be used to get that man’s attention works for me.