Search This Blog

30 October 2012

NBC's acquisition of Premier League TV rights a blow to American Soccer

 The television broadcasting conglomerate NBC announced on Sunday that, beginning in 2013, they had acquired the domestic television rights to England's Barclay's Premier League (EPL) for the next three seasons.

Allegedly, part of NBC Sport's selling point to EPL league chief executive Richard Scudamore was the "historical quality" of their international sports coverage. (I can only imagine that they're [somehow] alluding to NBC's Olympics coverage, which is about as biased towards American athletes and contextually shortsighted as possible.)

In any case, NBC Sports' deal with the EPL, worth an estimated $250 million, comes as a strong blow to rival cable television networks ESPN and Fox Soccer (FSC), who are the only two stations currently showing Premier League matches in the States.

Fox Soccer in particular, has been steadily losing its television rights to several other premier European soccer leagues. If the network does not act quickly to stop this bleeding, it may soon find itself in the same zone of obsolescence as GolTV, the once proud owners of television rights to Spain's La Liga (from 2004-2012), who now only show German Bundesliga and a few less-popular South American matches. As a result, Rupert Murdoch's satelite television giant DirecTV dropped GolTV from their broadcast packages.

Even with their extravagant financial offer, which was reportedly four times what any other network was willing to pay, NBC will feel confident that they can recoup expenses in a timely fashion given football's increasing popularity in the United States. While this might be music to the ears of English football fans on the "left side of the pond," who for so long had to illegally stream their beloved "Gooners," "Spurs," or "Red Devils,"it may actually hinder the development of football in the United States.

European football fans, such as myself, have long complained about the difficulty in watching European club football in America. Either you had to pay loads extra on your cable bill for a paltry selection of weekly matches, or you illegally streamed the trials and tribulations of your beloved team through your [faulty] internet connection. Depending on the specifics of the deal, NBC's EPL acquisition could change all of that.

As one of the largest broadcast networks in the States with a signal that is included in most basic cable packages, NBC could potentially deliver what Mr. Scudamore called, the "biggest and broadest programing." Yet nothing is universally "good." It's important to remember the "grey areas," or, what's good for one party may be bad for others.

In this case, NBC Sport's previous tenants, the MLS, will undoubtedly suffer from the "new deal."

Not only will the amount of airtime afforded to the less-developed, less-accomplished MLS decrease, but so will their profits and overall visibility. It's not that every American teen who plays soccer dreams of being in the MLS, but the MLS is all many of them have on hand; its teams the only ones that they can see in person, its players the only that they can tangibly look up to.

There's no denying that the EPL is among the world's best leagues. Some of the world's most accomplished footballers ply their trade for Premier League teams and dominate the limelight of world football week-in and week-out. It's also true that English football is more popular in the States and than any other league. But by effectively riding themselves of MLS, NBC is yet again embracing the "logic" of capitalist at the expense of contributing to the development of a national product. Such is globalization people!

Allow me to sum up the idea here if I have not yet been sufficiently clear...

NBC , a highly visible television network, acquires the rights to a more popular league (the EPL). Because NBC is included in basic cable packages (that are cheaper and more accessible than ESPN/Fox Sports), they will attract more viewers, and hence, generate more profits.

They will do this at the expense of the MLS, whose matches were previously shown on NBC. The MLS mostly consists of American and Central American players (it's where the majority of the Yanks and chavales from Central America have been cutting their proverbial "football teeth" before heading off to brighter pastures. In other words, less MLS exposure=less interest in MLS=less profits for the MLS=bankrupt MLS=big problem for the development of domestic talent in the US. Wow, I need to breath for a moment, that was heavy.

The other day I chronicled my first experience at an MLS match between Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union. The match may not have caused me to fall in love with the "beautiful game" all over again, but the unique passion of their fans encouraged me to give MLS another chance. I have no premonitions that the MLS will ever be a world class football league, but if nothing else, it's middling quality has served a decent purpose over the past decade by generating some solid American talent (Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donavon, Michael Bradley).

Things may now get more complicated for the MLS. If its survival and ability to attract domestic talent was dependent on gate entrances, advertising, and to a lesser extent, television revenue, it may now need to look elsewhere for funding. NBC shot the MLS in the foot with this one.

While this doesn't come as a complete shock, it is disappointing for those of us living and studying in the States who are attempting to break into sports journalism by covering soccer.

28 October 2012

We're not in Kansas anymore?/An odd place for "hooligans"

I was in the middle of the Kansas steppe with flowing corn and wheat fields stretching for hundreds of miles on each side of a seemingly endless highway. The wind gusted through that flat terrain with an unseasonable, disconcerting warmth. And then, all of a sudden pearly artificial lights pierced the landscape. Chain restaurants and retail stores built in the cowardly faux neoclassical style, so typical of some newer sections of the United States, grabbed one's attention like a light at the end of a tunnel. Just beyond the cluster of shops and restaurants it appeared-a bright collasal pentagon made of concrete and white metal, with four sizable surrounding entrances....

This was "Liverstrong Stadium."

Livestrong Stadium

So what exactly were 20,000 screaming soccer fans doing here? And why did this stadium, as of October 24, 2012, still carry the name of a cheater's organization?

Ex-US Postal Service cyclist Lance Armstrong's well-documented doping scandal has left his legacy in tatters. He's been stripped of his record seven Tour de France medals and has been forced to relinquish control of his cancer foundation, Livestrong.

PR representatives from Kansas City's Major League Soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, say that they are not considering re-naming their home ground, Livestrong Stadium. Controversial? Maybe slightly. But what's really in a name? With the team now in first place, clearly not everything.

I recently had the chance to visit the well-reputed home ground of the team formerly known as "The Kansas City Wizards" (a name more fitting than "Sporting," which stinks of a crude attempt at Europeanizing a 17-year old club with no tangible connection to Lisbon, Portugal or its 106 year-old Sporting Lisboa soccer club) and came away from the experience with several new impressions of soccer in the United States.

A birthday present to remember with fun people

The pitch at Livestrong Stadium was composed of nicely-manicured natural grass (a rarity for American sports fields these days). It was surrounded by comfortable well-designed seats with unobstructed views in every row, luxury boxes for the well-to-do, and standing room areas with plentiful access to "food and drink," from where I observed the match.

My friends and I presented our tickets to the ushers and crowded into a surprisingly well-filled stadium. The stadium's atmosphere and general aesthetics were inviting, yet professional-professional in the sense that the design (overhanging roofs, readily accessible food and beverage stations, memorabilia shops at every corner) mimicked the most renowned European and South American stadiums-and inviting in the sense that this felt like a team's true home.

That night Sporting Kansas City, who occupied first-place in the Eastern Conference of the MLS, would play third-from-last Philadelphia Union. The home fans were decked out in sky blue shirts. The supporter's section, filled to capacity, flew supportive banners and cheered on their squad with a fervent passion that I had not personally witnessed since Euro 2012. They even sang their own songs (in the spirit of their European and South American counterparts). Yet unlike some European and South American fans, these were better-behaved "hooligans," content to sing and cheer without resorting to the darker arts of flare throwing, racial abuse, or violence.

What began as a birthday present from a friend, ended with a new impression of a nascent soccer league still trying to establish a unique identity and appeal to a wider crowd.

While I can't say that I was initially excited by the prospect of attending an MLS match, I was impressed, however, by the venue and by the prominence and creativity of the Sporting fans. I can now even see how MLS could develop into an internationally-competitive league (certainly not on par with Argentina's Primera Division or Brazil's Serie A, but perhaps more akin to Mexico's Liga MX or Uruguay's Primera).

Improving this league, however, might require some difficult decisions. The difficulty will be in establishing a youth system that is unhindered by the demands of higher education and college sports. This in essence, is the key difference between the European/South American educational model and the American version.

Whereas European children generally specialize in a subject or pursue a professional track early in their lives, Americans follow the general education principle. It may be hard to unanimously defend either model, but European soccer clubs, who generally begin "educating" players as young as five, have clearly developed an enviable profit-making system.

I've never considered following the MLS, mostly because I've already chosen my loyalties and prefer to follow the established, high quality European and South American leagues. That's not to say that I'll never follow MLS, but I wasn't exactly encouraged by the quality of play that night. Even Sporting KC, a league-leading team, reminded me of the technically dull college soccer that has hindered the development of a decent professional league since the inception of the MLS. Many MLS players cut their teeth with college soccer teams, which given the learning curve for young players, seems like a waste of time.

As easy as it was so criticize some of the slack dribbling, lazy passing, and sloppy play of the Sporting KC and Philadelphia players, they were "doing what they loved and getting paid for it," as one of my friends reminded me.

Confetti rains down as Sporting makes it 1-0

In the end Sporting won 2-1 in a back-and-forth match that made me want to quit drinking the warm Budweiser, which was failing to quench my thirst, and step onto the pitch myself to show the world what I (maybe) still possessed. The blue confetti that reigned down in the Philadelphia half after a Sporting goal, however, snapped me back to my senses. The MLS has come a long way since its inception in the mid-1990's, but it's also got a long way to go.  Teams like Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders, however, have started to do things the right way and maybe the models for the growth of this league.