In case you haven’t been paying attention, the owners are set to lock out the players and the two sides don’t seem terribly close to a new collective bargaining agreement. The commish is frustrated. The union has declared “war.” And the fans … well, most fans are sitting around thinking to themselves that the league can’t possibly be that dumb, right? (It should be noted that the looming debacle is mainly the fault of the owners, who aren’t satisfied merely having most of the money. So we’ll have no talk about “the union and the owners.”)
But if they kill the 2011-12 season, what are sports fans going to do? Watch bowling? Poker? Hmmm. If they’re smart, the NCAA will shift some games to Sunday to capitalize on the void, and that would be a good time.
I’ll tell you who else ought to be striding purposefully into that Sunday/Monday night vacuum: the English Premier League. For the uninitiated, the EPL is England’s top soccer flight, and it’s widely regarded as perhaps the best league in the world (a lot of people will argue for Spain’s La Liga, but at best they’re tied for top honors). If you watched the World Cup last summer, a lot of those top international stars play club ball in the EPL.
Before we go any further, I know that some of you are feeling a dire need to make sure the rest of us understand how boring soccer is not a real sport wusses French cheese-eaters nobody ever scores I’ll never watch soccer goddamned ESPN shoving that crap down our throats blah blah I’m a real man blah blah blarg…. Yes. We get it. You don’t like soccer. Thank you for offering an opinion.
Now, where was I?
I get that for many American football fans, Euro soccer (even very good Euro soccer) isn’t an acceptable substitute. I get that soccer isn’t going to be #1 in the US anytime soon, if ever. I understand that even a top EPL game wouldn’t draw anywhere near the ratings you’d get from a mid-season Steelers/Ravens slobberknocker. But this isn’t about replacing American football – it’s merely about providing sports enthusiasts with some alternatives while they’re waiting for the rich people to divvy up our money.
Soccer is, like it or not, increasing in viewer popularity here in the US.
- Over a third of the population caught some of the World Cup. Seriously, even restaurants and bars that you don’t normally associate with soccer were feckin’ zoos during the Cup.
- ESPN has made soccer coverage more of a priority (you routinely see futbol highlights in the Plays of the Day) and…
- Landon Donovan’s dramatic game-winner against Algeria, which sent the American side into the elimination rounds, was named ESPN’s Play of the Year. It was, too – if that do-or-die finish didn’t get you out of the recliner you just don’t like sports.
- Clubs like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and my own beloved Chelsea are devoting a good bit of effort to marketing themselves in the US. As a result…
- EPL ratings on ESPN2 and FSC are up and…
- December’s Manchester United/Arsenal match even set a Prem viewership record in the US.
- That game, by the way, kicked at 5:30am here in Denver, and while the British Bulldog (local home to all things soccer) isn’t normally packed at that hour, they are open and doing a better breakfast business than most places. (The Rocky Mountain Blues Chelsea Supporters Group will be there this Saturday at 5:30, in fact, for the FA Cup tie with Everton. You’re invited to join us if you happen to be in or near the 5280.)
ESPN has EPL broadcast rights both here and in the UK, so you can see where I’m heading: If it looks like the NFL is going to shut down next year, it makes sense for ESPN/ABC and the Premier League to have some serious talks about how they can provide alternate programming for an American audience that’s more interested in top-tier soccer than at any point in history. The sooner the planning begins, the better.
Unfortunately, the time difference tricks up the logistics. England is five hours ahead of the US East Coast, so the EPL would have to move start times back for featured games. Still, a Sunday night kick at 6pm UK time would work fine as a replacement for the usual NFL early game, which kicks off at 1pm EST. I’m not sure how a 9pm London start time would go over for the Brits, but you could at least fill one Sunday slot, maybe two if you go with 11am and 2pm East Coast starts. Replacing Monday Night Football might be more difficult – would audiences who care enough about the EPL to follow it actually wait to watch tape-delay? Maybe not.
I’m not proposing not a magic bullet for NFL withdrawal by any stretch, and let’s be clear – the best solution is for the NFL’s owners to extract their heads from their asses and agree to a new CBA that the players can live with. Failing that, though, the NFL is currently swinging open a potential door of opportunity for those promoting soccer in the US. It makes sense for ABC/ESPN to investigate a Plan B that will appeal to more viewers than the One-A-Day Earl Anthony Memorial Classic.