Show of power: Television has been the driving force behind soccer's growth
Take a look at FourFourTwo's ranking of the most powerful people in U.S. soccer. Those making the greatest impact on the beautiful game’s most dedicated fans are right at the top.
No, not Sunil Gulati and Don Garber. U.S. Soccer's president and Major League Soccer's commissioner are Nos. 1 and 2 for good reason, but we're going to watch the national teams and MLS -- or aren't -- no matter who's top brass.
It's the guys right below them, the ones whose names don't necessarily ring bells; those guys are most meaningful in the lives of us everyday fans. Univision's Juan Carlos Rodriguez (at No. 3), Fox Sports' Eric Shanks (No. 4), ESPN's John Skipper (No. 6) and NBC Sports' Jon Miller (No. 7) hold the real authority around here, and it's their work, and that of others like them, that has turned the USA into something of a soccer paradise over the past quarter-century.
Manage your DVR right and you could, in theory, watch soccer 24 hours a day every day for the rest of your life. Add in the programming the networks provide on their digital platforms, and forget theory.
The English are stunned when they visit the States and discover that we see more EPL action than they do. Every game available live. We get everything from Liga MX. There's UEFA Champions League, of course, as well as Europa League, Copa Libertadores, CONCACAF Champions League. We watch all of the major domestic competitions -- Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A included, plus every round of the F.A. Cup -- and all the big internationals, not just the World Cup.
And, of course, all of MLS, through its current $720 million deal (through 2022) with ESPN, Fox and Univision Deportes, on the MLS Direct Kick package on cable television, and the MLS Live online platform. Also NWSL, now on Lifetime. Even college soccer in the fall, especially on the Big Ten and Pac 12 networks and so forth.
Is this heaven?
Those of a certain age might think so. Go back 40 years, just as the youth soccer boom was igniting, and there were just three games on television each week. “Star Soccer” gave us a 60-minute edit of an English League game, so often involving Liverpool or Nottingham Forest. “Soccer Made in Germany,” also on PBS, turned us into Cologne and Borussia Mönchengladbach supporters. And SIN, Univision's precursor, on Sundays offered a Mexican game, often as a precursor to weekly bullfighting coverage.
... the most important thing to happen in American soccer in the last however many years is NBC's coverage of the EPL.
Occasionally something else would pop up. ABC, usually through “Wide World of Sports” would give us NASL's Soccer Bowl final. The first stage of the 1978 World Cup was on SIN; live English coverage of the world's biggest sporting event was still four years away.
Want to watch the F.A. Cup final? Get ye to an olde English pub. Guinness at 6 a.m., at least on the West Coast, was a tradition for many. The World Cup final? That'll cost you $20, when $20 was considerable cash, for a seat in an arena with a closed-circuit feed. These were the days you bought soccer magazines, if your local bookstore carried them, to learn the scores from three weeks ago.
Everything's different since Paul Caligiuri's goal sent us to the 1990 World Cup and prevented, perhaps, the 1994 tournament moving elsewhere. Everything we have today stems from this, and the growth of the game -- of our national team programs, of the professional game, of the game at the grassroots levels -- is mirrored and ultimately fueled by the advances in television coverage.
There are dozens of line charts and graphs that express this, but here's just one: TNT bought the rights to the 1990 World Cup for $7.75 million. Or just a little bit more than Kaká makes at Orlando City. ESPN's price four years later was $11 million, up to $22 million in 1998. Fox Sports' deal for the 2018 and 2022 Cups is worth $425 million, and Telemundo spent $600 million for the Spanish-language rights.
Bigger still is what NBC Sports spent on the English Premier League: $1 billion over six years, through the 2021-22 season. Yes, MLS has sprinted forward the past decade, the U.S. men have reached the knockout stage in successive World Cups for the first time, and the U.S. women are world champs for the first time this century, but the most important thing to happen in American soccer in the last however many years is NBC's coverage of the EPL.
There's a game on NBC -- on the main channel, the one we've been getting over the air, mostly, for nearly 80 years -- and the statement that makes is a bit mind-blowing. We've been hearing since the 1970s how soccer was going to be a mainstream sport. It's finally happening.
Television deserves a lot of the credit for that. That Fox and NBC and ESPN and Univision and Telemundo and beIN and so on are spending more and more to show more and more games happens only because there's an audience, and a lot of that audience has been built by providing the means to see the world's biggest games in its most potent atmospheres. Viewership is up, ad revenues are climbing, and profits -- no matter how much is spent -- are made.
That leads to more soccer on our screens. It leads to more exposure, more opportunities to lure in new fans, and thus more viewers. That’s greater ad revenues, and thus more soccer ... and so on and so forth.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.