Wednesday, September 30, 2009

ESPN, Why Are You Jobbing Us?

Somebody call the World Wide Leader's ombudsmen.

As ARF correctly pointed out here, football in America is on the up-and-up. We're able to watch more of it than ever on TV - a fact readily apparent when FutbolNation's "What to Watch and Where" is created. The EPL and la Liga have at least five games on every weekend, sometimes six or seven. The Bundesliga has upwards of four, and even the slumping Serie A gets in on the action with three or four televised games.

Throw in the fact that this year's Champions League final is on a Saturday, we're headed towards a World Cup summer, and DirecTV is blocking off channels to broadcast Champions League, Europa League, and Liga games live and unbeknownst to many, and the old U.S. of A is starting off quite a love affair with the beautiful game. And don't even get me started on the increasing availabilty of HD feeds from overseas. Simply sublime.

And yet, for all their well-packaged, slick advertising about airing la Liga and EPL games, ESPN still can't get it right and is opting to shortchange footie fans across this country. While ESPN has remained true to their word on the EPL, they've fallen rather short when it comes to la Liga. Admittedly, the time slots the EPL games occupy are less competitive than the typically later starting Liga games, and and the EPL is infinitely more popular than la Liga Stateside. But for the number of channels ESPN has, it's inexcusable that most of the Liga games thus far have been relegated to ESPNDeportes.

If ESPN holds the rights to Liga games, and in HD no less (Deportes does not currently broadcast in high definition), how can it avoid fitting these games into its ESPNClassic schedule? ESPNDeportes remains a channel largely unavailable (DirecTV didn't pick it up until 2008) to the U.S. masses and tends to be found on Spanish-language packages. Meanwhile, English speakers can't get the game, but can get the The New Outdoorsmen or some such nonsense that aired parallel to Liga games on ESPNClassic this past weekend.

Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt that ESPN has studied its viewing population extensively. But without the NFL on Sundays, I find it hard to believe that Liga action couldn't earn a more coveted spot in its lineup. Moreover, ABC and ESPN have made a commitment to football, landing the World Cup next summer, and having aired the Euro and Confederations Cup in recent summers. Just like the game continues to grow in the American popular landscape, ESPN should be catering to that growing number of Americans who want to watch Barcelona, even if they are playing a Xerex or Tenerife.

ESPN lost out to Fox when the Champions League rights were up for grabs last. And Fox is doing a phenomenal job selling the competition and making it as widely available as it can. Meanwhile, ESPN seems to be biding its time, almost willing to forfeit the beautiful game to "upstart" FSC. But the fact remains that ESPN has a monopoly on sports in this country, and Fox can't push the sport as much as ESPN could. I still dream of an ESPNSoccer channel with EPL, Liga, European, and international game rights (with big games on ESPN2).

And while that may be a pipe dream now, the truth is that soccer needs ESPN as much as ESPN needs soccer. Even if a consolidated soccer channel may never happen in this country, it'd be great to see ESPN take some pride in the rights they've acquired and at least try and exploit/make available all the soccer games they can air to the widest audience. Who knows, maybe in the short term ESPN2 or ESPNClassic wins with lumberjack competitions, Little League baseball, and dog jumping competitions (which I actually love), but in the long term I'd put money that they're better served by selling soccer to America.

Until then, the term "Worldwide Leader" rings hollow. A lot like when domestic leagues have the audacity to call their winners "World Champions." Mostly pomp and pretension, without much real evidence that they're "world" anythings. ESPN would do well in trying to lead the way in the world's game. I'd be surprised if it weren't more popular and profitable than the NBA games from the 1980s or the boxing matches from the 1970s that they're running on ESPNClassic this weekend.

UPDATE: GolTV will be carrying Sevilla-Real Madrid this weekend. Meanwhile, ESPN2 will carry the one o'clock Sunday game (Racing-Valencia) and ESPNDeportes' lineup is wholly "TBD." Note to ESPN, buy GolTV. Period.

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