Soccer Sunday on Fox

Friday, September 16, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

As one of those interminable people constantly worried about the popularity of soccer in the United States, I should be thrilled that Fox is giving the sport a run on their flagship over-the-air behemoth of a network starting this Sunday. Manchester United and Chelsea will be shown, on tape delay, right smack in the middle of the usual National Football League window. The footballs are colliding, gigantic robot-style. Most of us (meaning soccer fans who read blogs, soccer previews, and obsessively track every little detail) will have already seen the match or couldn't be bothered to watch either showing. Nevertheless, it's something of a landmark occurrence.

I suppose the thinking is that Fox will take this valuable property to which they hold the (not exactly cheap) rights and double-dip by sticking it next to the country's most popular sport. It certainly can't hurt soccer's popularity, and might even win over a good amount of new fans. If nothing else, it's a sign that soccer's value as television property is on the rise.

Of course, being the cynical and insecure American soccer guy that I am (if you're an American soccer fan who can be classified as something more than "casual" and you're not at least mildly cynical, I'd like some of the happy juice you're drinking, please), I say all that grudgingly. Of course it's the English Premier League that is going to get a Fox roll out on Sunday afternoons when that network has its largest audiences. Of course it's a non-American version of the game that will be first taste some Americans get of the sport on a professional level. Of course MLS is once again the forgotten man as American television executives come around to the idea that this sport might have a bit of a future in the US. A tape-delayed game, something usually anathema to most American sports fans unless they themselves do the taping, is being given the stage during our most hallowed of sports days.

But what if there's a significant new audience to be found? Suppose people either unaware of what soccer has to offer or previously hesitant to even turn on a game are suddenly sucked in by Fox's Premier League ploy? Would that be good or bad for American soccer?

Feeding the monster that is America's predilection for the biggest and best can only lead me to think that - in the short term at least - a new audience of fans taking an interest in soccer through exposure to the Premier League doesn't do the American game any good at all. In the big picture sense, the same picture that gives us things like the World Football Challenge (in a country that calls the game soccer) more interest is more interest is more interest. "Soccer" wins, the subcategory of "American soccer" probably doesn't. That's because new fans introduced to soccer by the Fox game won't go looking for an MLS match the next time, they'll stick with what they've already seen: the pomp, pageantry, and bigness of the English game. For a lot of these people, it won't be about the Anglophilia or Eurosnobbery we usually see in soccer circles, but that the EPL is the most accessible soccer corollary to the NFL. Which is why Fox is slotting into their empty Sunday afternoon slot in the first place.

As an American soccer fan, I know that MLS and the version of the game played here can be a tough sell. If first exposure to professional soccer comes via richest league in the world, that sell goes from tough to nearly impossible. Not amount of shaming or cajoling is going to turn these fans - most of whom won't put in more effort than watching a game or half a game a week - into appreciators of MLS. If they're going to come around to the American league, they're going to have to do it on their own. That means waiting, probably for quite some time, before a gain for Category: Soccer gain means anything for Subcategory: American soccer.

I'm in the process of preparing to launch a new podcast, after leaving the American Soccer Show for a new and more lucrative challenge. A writing colleague, a guy I like and respect, shot me an eamil askin if the new show might be on the Grantland podcast network, which seems to have a new addition every day. It's not, and while I would jump at the chance to do an American soccer podcast for Grantland, I'd be happy to see anything even superficially related to MLS show up there, whether I was involved or not. For me, Grantland (and specifically the man behind it, Bill Simmons) have come to singularly represent the progress and problems of soccer in America.

Soccer is on Grantland, reflecting the encouraging fact that the game at least merits the same treatment as most of the non-Big 3. We might take that for granted in 2011, but 10 or 15 years ago it would be surprising to see a site with the profile of Grantland giving soccer any more than a passing mention. But a scan of the soccer items at the site reveals the troubling fact that MLS still does not exist there. Coverage is almost exclusively limited to the English Premier League and the USMNT.

The one soccer podcast included in their network is an English Premier League show hosted by two Englishman. While I love Brian Phillips as a writer and will read nearly anything he writes on any subject, I don't get the impression he watches too much of the American first division. Carles of Hipster Runoff fame has written on American soccer subjects more than once, but never with MLS more than a tangential concern. The only piece in which MLS is the focus is a story on the Sounder-Timbers rivalry, a phenomenon that transcends soccer and isn't really about MLS at all.

Grantland's approach to soccer reflects the editor-in-chief's attitude. Simmons has made it clear that MLS isn't of any interest to him because it's not the best version of the game on offer (if I remember correctly, he made a minor league baseball analogy). As a relatively new fan to the sport and a casual one, he is a perfect exemplar for the type of sports fan who might tune in to Fox's Premier League presentation. Guys like Simmons aren't going to easily convert to MLS fans.

We're rapidly approaching the point when bringing more Americans to soccer isn't really a concern, and bringing more American fans to American soccer should trump the big picture progress. That's why the World Football Challenge and international friendlies during the MLS season are troubling when promoted as anything other than a bald moneymaker; the belief that they'll bring fans of the European game over to MLS is spurious at best, with no direct evidence (and to be fair, I'm not sure there's a way to measure it) that they do anything for the amount of interest in MLS.

Here's my disclaimer, which renders almost everything I've written to this point null and void: My attitude on Fox's tape-delay gambit is probably ridiculous. I'm certain I'm overstating any possible effects such a thing will have on the size of the soccer fan base in America. More soccer in more places exposed to more eyeballs can never be an entirely bad thing, no matter my nonsense concerns about a new wave of English-focused fans emerging from Middle America. My angst over this issue is misplaced and disproportionate to the EPL on Fox, hours after the game broadcast has ended.

But someone, somewhere, is bound to be intrigued by it. My own love affair with soccer started because I flipped by an EPL game on some random weekend years ago. I quickly migrated to the American game and MLS, so perhaps I should have some hope that those sucked in by the Fox broadcast will eventually find themselves watching MLS as well.

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