In an age of DVDs and Netflix, satellite and fibre optic internet cable, PVRs and On-Demand, live sporting events are an increasingly sought after property in TV circles. Because sports take place in real time, jag-offs like you or I have to sit through acres of TV ads to get to the sweet, sweet sports candy, lest we want to avoid friends, family and any and all media, new and old, to watch it ourselves later on PVR. Sports is the one thing on TV that cleaves to the old formula: put it on TV, earn high viewer ratings, sell ads at a premium. Not only that, but compared to traditional sitcoms and dramas, TV broadcasts themselves are relatively cheap to produce.
Of those sporting properties, soccer is currently the “hottest” among the very important 12-24 year-old demographic in the USA where it ranks second only the NFL in popularity. From a Luker on Trends report released last March in conjunction with ESPN:
This is partly the reason why interest in football has exploded in North American TV*, and why Al Jazeera’s offshoot beIN sport decided to buy the North American rights to La Liga and—as many US fans found out Friday night—the rights to the US national team away games (except for Mexico) in World Cup qualifying from Traffic Sports USA.
Based on last night’s telecast, US mens national teams fans aren’t very happy with the current state of affairs. Fox Soccer’s Leander Schaerlaeckens went so far as to call out beIN for their coverage on the splash page, a comparatively rare event in soccer media circles. After relaying word of the ‘subpar commentary’ mentioned by US fans, Schaerlaeckens wrote:
Few [fans] were able to watch the game to begin with. A property of Al Jazeera, beIN came into existence only recently and nabbed the right to air U.S. national team away games on the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – provided its path does in fact lead there. But beIN is carried by just one cable company and two satellite systems. For most fans wanting to watch, they would have to forsake the comfort of their own couch for the rare bar that would show the game.
Most observers of the media game in soccer know that the TV rights game is almost entirely decided on money. Rights go to the TV channel with the biggest bid, even if that TV channel barely exists on the available satellite and cable provider packages, and will realistically be seen by no one.
To be fair, the United States Soccer Federation had little say in beIN picking up the away games package from Traffic Sports (USSF chief Sunil Gulati was diplomatic on the purchase). But La Liga certainly did, and were happy to cede their package to the channel with the biggest bag of money, even though it meant taking their product off US and Canadian screens for an unspecified period that could stretch into months if not years.
In Europe, this sort of thing wouldn’t matter nearly as much. Domestic league football is so popular there enough fans would pay a disturbingly high TV premium to enjoy Serie A, the Bundesliga, or the Premier League (especially the Premier League) to make an obscene rights deal worthwhile. Barring that, fans would go to the pub, who pay exorbitant fees to show games to the drinking public. Some of the kids will watch online, but the majority of TV viewers, not knowing a router from a mouse, will simply pay a giant cable bill and shrug.
In the US (and, one suspects, Canada), the strategy of simply selling to the highest bidder is far more dangerous for the value of the product in the long term. First, games are shown earlier in the day, which means fewer people will trek out to the pub to watch.
Second, despite it’s growing popularity among the young, soccer is still a niche sport, so relying on third party establishments to show games in the interim isn’t a great strategy for growth.
Third, soccer is growing fastest among younger viewers who are either high school or university students. They’re not usually among those interested in purchasing expensive cable packages to watch games, and only a lucky minority will be able to convince their parents to do the same.
Fourth, 12-24 year-olds tend also to be Internet savvy. While waiting for beIN to work out deals with various cable providers, they will become better adept at finding free Internet streams (so will USA fans, who took to illegal feeds on Friday night in droves).
Fifth, and most alarmingly for those interested in growing soccer in America, many of these younger viewers at the early stages of interest will find other, easily-available mainstream sports to watch. beIN’s purchase could harm the growth of the game in the US and Canada.
It’s possible beIN’s strategy is to hold the reins for a while until the present demographic grows up and gains some purchasing power, enough to subscribe to the channel when it becomes available. But with La Liga offline, only an HD, available, affordable, and bug-proof streaming service will be enough to reap the financial benefits from acquiring rights. Because, in the meantime, illegal streams will get better, faster, and be more widely available. In time, they could threaten the TV sports market as much as illegal downloads upended the music industry.
And that means far less money from international rights deals for overseas leagues. And, sadly, as we’re already seeing, less exposure to overseas soccer in North America.
*excluding Mexico, duh duh duh