Why Isn’t There a Soccer Network?

One of the more perplexing–actually, I’ll say it’s the most perplexing–facts about television today is that there is essentially nowhere, other than pay-per-view, where you can watch international soccer such as the European or FA Cups, let alone regular-season matches from England’s Premier League or Italy’s Serie A.

This depressing fact has already prompted a welcome cri de coeur from Slate contributor Michael Hirschorn in the newest Brill’s Content, where he points out how odd it is that in the wasteland that is the upper reaches of the cable box, there’s no room for true international stars like David Beckham, Ronaldo, or Davor Suker. But the paradoxical situation is that something that is incredibly valuable abroad–Rupert Murdoch, you might remember, was willing to shell out $1 billion to acquire the Manchester United franchise–is thought to have little or no value in the United States. And while we might well ask ESPN, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to show three great international matches a week instead of six hours of SportsCenter reruns?,” it costs ESPN nothing to run the SportsCenter reruns, while buying the rights to international matches–which are, in any case, mostly controlled by Murdoch–wouldn’t necessarily come cheap.

The key words here, though, are “thought to have little or no value.” Despite the ascendance of soccer moms into American political iconography, despite the fact that a generation of kids has now grown up playing soccer, and despite the success of successive World Cups (men and women) here in 1994 and in 1999, the essential operating assumption of television programmers for all the major networks–broadcast and cable–is that no real audience for international soccer exists. But more and more, this seems to be a clear case where one of the reasons that audience has failed to materialize is because the opportunity for it to materialize has never existed.

It’s not, after all, as if the networks had given international soccer the old college try, found that it failed, and then abandoned its plans. On the contrary, if you want to watch international soccer, you usually have to pay $15 or $20 for pay-per-view, which, no matter how much you love soccer, is a lot of money. And even then the publicity for the games is essentially nonexistent. A few weeks ago, two of the best European teams played a match in the Meadowlands, which is a half-hour away from where I live. I didn’t hear about it until the day after the match was played.

What’s odd about this is that in certain respects soccer seems to be a natural. Not to replace football or baseball, but maybe to replace women’s boxing on ESPN2. There are more people of Latin American descent in the United States than ever before, who you would think might be interested in watching Ronaldo play for Inter Milan. More than that, millions of kids play the game, which presumably must make them curious about the people who play it better than anyone else.

And then there’s this interesting fact, which was actually noted in a front-page article in the business section of today’s New York Times: The most popular video game made by Electronic Arts, the largest video-game maker in the world, is FIFA ‘99, a soccer game featuring all the great international teams. Is it really plausible that there’s a huge market for an international soccer video game, and no market at all for international soccer on television? As it happens, I’m a devoted fan of FIFA ‘99, and its sister game, World Cup ‘98. And everyone I’ve met who plays these games cares about international soccer and would be ecstatic were some network to take a flyer and show some of these games.

In theory, if an opportunity to make money by showing international soccer exists, someone would have already taken advantage of it. But it’s almost certainly true that none of the executives in charge of programming grew up playing or watching soccer, which is why you always hear the same criticisms of the game–too slow, too boring, not enough scoring. At the same time, the continuing woes of the MLS–the American soccer league–have made it seem as if there is no American audience for the game. But although the MLS is much better than it was, it’s still vastly inferior to the European game, so the popularity of one is a poor measure of the potential popularity of the other.

The point isn’t that soccer will ever become a huge cash cow for an American network. But it has all the makings of a perfect niche market. The problem is that until someone gives that market a real chance to show itself, we can’t prove it exists. Until then, Electronic Arts will keep raking in the profits of which some television network might otherwise claim a nice share.