Turns out NBC buying the rights to Major League Soccer wasn’t the most noteworthy move of the week in American televised soccer. It was the serious mixed messages for soccer fans out of Bristol, which claims to be a massive believer in the growth of the sport as a television property.
ESPN turned its ample promotional muscle to an exhibition match between bitter rivals the United States and Mexico. The game meant nothing in the grand scheme of things (the Mexicans smacked the Yanks recently in the one that did matter - the Gold Cup final). But because it is U.S.-Mexico (always a big draw in the relative terms of soccer ratings) and it marked the debut of new American manager Jurgen Klinsmann, it had some sex appeal.
So ESPN sent out a press release trumpeting all its coverage - from a big pregame show with lots of talent on site in Philly to its SportsNation show being dedicated to the game with the underrated Michelle Beadle and guest host Taylor Twellman on site as well (the release left out that Colin Cowherd would still appear from Bristol, but that’s another gripe for another time).
That’s not the head-scratching part. Here is:
I watched SportsNation and it was fun. I also watched the pregame show, and led by the fantastic Bob Ley as always, it gave a meaningless game big-game appeal.
Then I left the house - actually to go play in a soccer game myself to be honest - and set the TiVo to record the game.
And when I got back - I realized I had missed the first 20 minutes or so of the game, including Mexico’s goal in an eventual 1-1 draw.
Was it user error? Nope. ESPN2 - where the game was scheduled to air - had dumped the beginning of the game onto ESPN News because of a regional semifinal of little league baseball.
As Sports Illustrated’s well-regarded Grant Wahl put it on Twitter: “ESPN treated USA-Mexico like a big game with SportsNation & a half-dozen broadcasters on-site. Undermined everything by moving it for LLWS.”
We could get into ratings comparisons here between soccer and other minor sports - and trust me soccer fans, you don’t want me to - because it’s ugly, as in the stuff you didn’t read about yesterday in the MLS to NBC stories.
But that’s not the point. Wahl’s is the point. What’s the point of playing up this game like it is so big, and then not even airing it from the start where it was scheduled to air?
I understand a lot goes into scheduling, from contractual obligations to ratings analysis breakdowns, but sometimes as someone who just wanted to watch a game, I don’t care. Just air the game where you said you were going to - or spare me the press releases and the buildup and all the talk about how important soccer is to ESPN. You can’t have it both ways.
UPDATED: An ESPN spokesperson responded with the following via Twitter: “(S)tarting US-MEX on ESPNEWS was unfortunate circumstance but this is one of the challenges of back-to-back live events. ESPN almost always sticks w/ the live event until it ends. Soccer fans would want the same if a match ran long. Fans were alerted of sched change and match was still available in HD and on ESPN3. Otherwise, hope you liked ESPN’s unprecedented commitment to this friendly.”