About a year ago, soccer highlights started popping up mysteriously at the end of ESPN’s SportsCenter. Soon, almost every night, one of ESPN’s “Top Ten” plays was a soccer highlight from somewhere in the world. I found it odd because they were showing highlights that 99 percent of its audience could care less about, but it was clear what ESPN was doing. It would only be a matter of time before ESPN went global and The Worldwide Leader was bracing its American audience for the future.
Now, the future might be around the corner.
Irish sports channel, Setanta Sports, is on the brink of collapse and ESPN seems to be the favorite to pick up Setanta Sports’ 46 Premier League matches. If ESPN became a player in the most popular soccer league in the world, what would be the fallout?
Obviously, the most pressing issue to United Kingdom and Ireland viewers would be what channel are matches going to be on? ESPN runs ESPN America which airs throughout the U.K., Ireland and other parts of Europe. With two months before the start of the season, it seems unlikely ESPN could put together an entirely new channel. That said, expect ESPN America to radically change, starting with the name. (Of course, there is the possibility that ESPN would just buy Setanta.)
More interesting would be the long-term change to sports broadcasting in the U.K. Earlier this year, I spent time in Ireland and England and it was shocking watching Sky Sports on a regular basis. The coverage of the matches was solid, but everything else about Sky Sports seemed amateurish compared to ESPN. Sky Sports’ news show, “Sky Sports News,” was light years behind SportsCenter. The hosts have no chemistry, there are very few actual reporters and the some of the stories make you scratch your head. For example, almost every broadcast features some footballer visiting a school to promote reading or physical activity or whatever. It’s shameless public relations and has absolutely nothing to do with sports news.
It’s not as though ESPN or SportsCenter is perfect (the constant in-show advertising can drive anyone crazy, annoying analysis, stupid jokes) but SportsCenter is incredibly good at covering American sports, from Spring Training to the Bowl Championship Series. ESPN doesn’t just report the news, it consistently breaks it. If ESPN covered the summer transfer window the same way it covered the NFL Draft I think British audiences would be blown away.
It’s easier said than done. We’re talking about two different cultures and finding the right tone for a British audience will be difficult (it goes without saying all of the on air talent will have to be British). What I am sure of is ESPN would be enough of a formidable competitor that Sky Sports would have to improve its programing to stay on top — which would be good for everyone.
In the U.S., ESPN getting the Premier League would be a huge boost for soccer in the country. It’s hard to overestimate the power of ESPN on sports in America. The X-Games and poker are two examples of ESPN taking fringe sports (if you consider poker a sport) and making them mainstream. The Internet has already made European soccer popular to an underground community, but the Premiership airing Saturday and Sunday mornings on ESPN could lead to an explosion of interest.
If ESPN does start broadcasting English matches it will be interesting to see how it effects Major League Soccer. On the Fox Soccer Channel, which is currently the only station in the U.S. showing the Premiership, viewers already prefer the English game to the American game by a 2/1 margin.
There’s two was to look at it. A) More interest in the sport, no matter where it comes from, could only be good for MLS and interest in its league will improve. B) Fans will see the stark contrast between the Premiership and MLS and interest will suffer. I’m not smart enough to know which will happen, but my gut tells me “B” is more likely.
This much I do know. If ESPN decides to be a serious player in the Premiership, soccer coverage in the U.K. and the U.S. will change forever.