Just a few months back, soccer fans around the world eagerly waited announcement of the host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The conventional wisdom suggested that an award of future World Cup to the United States was essential for the ongoing development of the sport in this country. The results were disappointing, but the bidding for television rights may be equally significant event for fans of the American game. Bids are due on Wednesday, and whatever the ratings appeal of MLS, the World Cup has become a tv juggernaut. Americans love an event, and the television success enjoyed by ESPN in 2010 suggests that there are significant opportunities as the beautiful game gains an increasing foothold in the United States.
Perhaps more important than television ratings is the relationship between the broadcast of the World Cup and coverage of Major League Soccer. Many Americans shudder at the thought of an ESPN not fully invested in soccer. The Worldwide Leader’s coverage of 2010 in South Africa was outstanding and the network’s dedication to MLS has steadily increased over the years. Prior to 2010, many fans hoped that the experience in South Africa would lead to improved ESPN telecasts, and objectively, it has. Fans are wary, however, about the impact of ESPN losing the bid. Many allege that the NHL largely disappeared from ESPN highlights shows, commentary and radio after the league signed with NBC/Versus. With NBC and its new sports channel the leading competitor for American rights, a similar situation is possible.
The stakes are especially high since both ESPN and NBC have rights to MLS through 2014. Will the losing network in Switzerland have lessened motivation to promote the domestic league? Will a loss to NBC deprive MLS of the wall to wall coverage only ESPN can offer its properties? Spanish language rights are also in play. The questions, concerns and opportunities are many.
Grant Wahl of SI weighs in with a great piece outlining the issues and players, here.