Soccer’s American television and media evolution

(This is the second in a series of posts this week about the World Cup, which kicks off June 12 in Brazil. Monday’s post was about FIFA dealing with match-fixing and corruption allegations.)

Twenty years ago this summer, the lead announcers for ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup in the United States were Roger Twibell and Seamus Malin.

Remember them?

For anyone tuning in then, or old enough to remember, those were heady days for American soccer. Finally, the sport was coming out of some very dark shadows and into the sunlight of international sporting prominence.

This was all true, and for an American caught up in the excitement over the World Cup those remain very special memories for me. (The other day I was listening to the official USA ‘94 CD that includes Hall and Oates, Tina Turner and Carlos Santana. But that’s a post for another time.)

But compared to what a typical American television soccer viewer can see today, on an almost daily basis, and the quality of the production involved, 1994 might seem like the dark ages.

The World Cup that begins next week in Brazil will mark the end of ESPN’s coverage of that event, as Fox is set to take over starting next year with the Women’s World Cup. The timing is dastardly, given how ESPN has raised the presentation of international soccer in the United States to levels envied in more soccer-saturated nations like Great Britain.

ESPN’s evolution in many ways has matched the growth in the availability, and the increasing quality, of soccer programming on American television.

The influence of USA ‘94 didn’t immediately take hold on television; MLS began in 1996 with a limited package, and only the rare English Premier League game was shown. Fox Sports Net began offering EPL weekly highlights, hosted by Lionel Bienvenu, in the late 1990s, followed by several full games a week on the new Fox Soccer Channel.

This was an American soccer fan’s wildest dream, but that period triggered so much more, including the first soccer-related blogs. The Web became a place for soccer fans in America to vent their frustrations at the lack of coverage, and to create their own. Message boards were created, as was the first full-fledged soccer television listing site, soccerTV.com.

As the 2000s arrived, Fox Soccer Channel flourished, showing games from Scotland, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, Latin America, the American lower divisions and the U.S. Open Cup, as well as the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup and non-U.S. World Cup qualifying. Univision and Telemundo also were becoming viewing destinations for non-Spanish speakers.

And yet, MLS stepped in to purchase the U.S. English language rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and worked out an agreement with ESPN after that.

By the middle of the last decade, the community of soccer fandom in America was pushing beyond an easily categorizable niche and into the edges of the sporting mainstream. In a nation seemingly hostile to a “foreign” sport, something significant had changed.

Firstly, this was partly generational. During the days when I saw many games at soccer bars, the clientele was made up largely of young American men who had played soccer as kids, and assorted ex-pats, particularly from Britain. As a baby boomer female who grew up before soccer hit the youth ranks, I was a notable exception.

And secondly, the ex-pat legions from many nations began accruing critical mass. Events like the World Football Challenge and other pre-season tours for European clubs sprung up around the continent to cater to the growing soccer spectator market. Major League Soccer found a solid source of revenue, through its Soccer United Marketing arm, to bring international matches to native-born Americans and immigrants alike, especially those with Mexican origins, and as MLS teams began building soccer-specific stadiums, some based on European atmospherics.

As ESPN president John Skipper noted recently, the cable outlet had been presenting the World Cup “to an American audience with Americans.” (You may remember the “inside the red zone” feature in 1998, which broke down attacking play for American fans using a phrase that’s a staple of gridiron football but doesn’t exist in soccer.)

Longtime ESPN host Bob Ley, whose soccer pedigree predates his employer’s existence, pointed out that the approach changed dramatically for the last World Cup in South Africa. As he explained to Jonathan Tannenwald of philly.com:

“They took the shackles off in 2010. It was transformative for us at the network, in realizing we could set the bar high editorially [and] artistically, and get over it and bring the audience with it. That’s where we have set the bar, and hopefully a little bit higher, for what we hope to achieve in Brazil.”

The rest of Tannenwald’s excellent post explores the subject further, with details on ESPN’s full plans for its final World Cup, with Ian Darke and former Major League Soccer forward Taylor Twellman in the lead booth.

This is all a nod to what soccer fans in America, whether they’re native-born or from somewhere else, have come to expect, even as the soccer media landscape changes. The Fox Soccer Channel went away earlier this year, as outlets such as GOLTv, beInSport and NBC Sports Network have come on the scene. ESPN will be a partner in MLS’ new multi-outlet television rights deal.

Soccer blogs, among them Bruce McGuire’s venerable du Nord Futbol that’s still housed at Blogspot after nine years, and the new American Soccer Now, continue to proliferate, as the knowledgeable and sophisticated voices of fans are finally being rewarded. Howler Magazine and Eight by Eight are new slick print products geared toward this emerging American “Soccer Nation.”

A host of new corporate sports sites, including Grantland, SB Nation and Sports on Earth, also give soccer mainstream play, appealing to a younger (mainly 40-and-under male) audience that’s grown up with soccer.

On Monday, Sports Illustrated elevated its fairly recent Planet Fútbol vertical to a full-fledged site, similar to its MMQB offering on the NFL headed by Peter King. As Mashable noted, Planet Fútbol comes with a solid base of advertisers aiming to tap into the growing American soccer demographic.

Former Deadspin editor Will Leitch, now writing for Sports on Earthadmitted he’s going to miss what ESPN has done for World Cup viewers in the United States, and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted:

“It’s worth noting that no other sport receives better live event coverage in this country than soccer. . . . It’s an odd paradox for American sports television: The fewer people who watch a sport, the better the coverage of it is. It’s as if the NFL is too big and too powerful for anyone to trust simply selling the sport to its fans; you have to blow it up, with every available bell and whistle, to wring every possible eyeball. There’s a modesty with how we show soccer these days; networks don’t want to offend the most loyal, devoted fans, so they give them what they want, how they want it, with respect. What a concept, right?”

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