Friday, November 25, 2011

Soccernomics: Soccer on Television

Photo Credit: Reuters

An interesting little tidbit from last weekend: a tape-delayed broadcast of the Liverpool-Chelsea English Premier League match on the Fox network drew almost double the viewership of the MLS Cup final.

This illustrates both the good and the bad of American soccer. The proliferation of European sooccer available on American TV over the last decade has completely changed the landscape. Americans are increasingly tuning in to see top flight soccer from the world's best leagues. At least in my neighborhood in Portland I see more grade school aged kids sporting European club and country jerseys than MLB, NBA, and NFL combined.

All of this seems like an incredibly positive thing for the sport in the US. Kids no longer think of it as a kids only sport that is a good pastime until you can play the real sports. And they get to see the world's best players, learning the moves and strategies that will help them progress the game in the states. It also raises the legitimacy of the sport in the eyes of the adults - it is not just a great game to play but a great spectator sport as well.

But there is a significant negative as well: such broadcasts expose the significant gulf between the level of play in the top European leagues and the state of play in the MLS. The MLS has made huge progress in terms of the experience in the stadiums - starting next season all but three teams will be playing in soccer specific stadiums (if we count the special shrinking magic of BC Place in Vancouver). Average attendance this year has grown significantly: up seven percent from the year before - helped by Portland and Vancouver.

For all of the in-stadium progress, the fact remains that MLS still struggles to attract TV audiences: the MLS Cup final drew a underwhelming 0.8 share. And now that top flight European soccer is easily available on US TV there is serious competition for eyeballs. Who would choose to watch a Dallas v. Philadelphia match when Barcelona is playing, or Kansas City v. Chivas USA when the Arsenal is playing Manchester United. The fact is that the product on the screen coming from Europe is far superior. So while the energy, excitement and fun at a Timbers game is second to none, the TV product is pretty lame (and don't get me started again about turf - it is even worse on TV than live).

And this is the economic conundrum: the real money in professional sports is from television. To the extent that European league broadcasts cannibalize the MLS TV market, the development of the MLS will be stunted by the lack of revenues to spend on quality players.

The hope is in those little kids with the Man United jerseys. As they progress and get better so will the US. There is no reason there can't be 20 or even 200 Landon Donovans in the US, and as we develop more players the play in the MLS will improve with them.

No comments: