Whether or not you believe soccer is relevant doesn’t matter. A lot of people tuned into the Women’s World Cup either because they were genuinely interested or because they finally succumbed to ESPN’s endless promotions.
What’s clear in “Those Guys Have All The Fun” or what’s commonly referred to as “The ESPN Book” is that John Skipper, the network’s Executive Vice President of Content, is a huge soccer fan. One of the first things he did following his promotion was hop on a plane and convince FIFA that ESPN was the best home for the World Cup. Landing the World Cup led to ESPN looking into a contract to broadcast the Barclays Premier League in the States.
The person in charge of deciding what is shown on the ESPN family of networks has decided that soccer is worth putting on American airwaves. His bosses have his back. That’s significant.
While I am a soccer fan that likes to see the national teams get a lot of exposure, there are tons of things that ESPN puts on that I have no real interest in. As cool as NASCAR looks in HD and as funny as “Talladega Nights” is, I almost never watch stock car racing.
And NASCAR is heavily promoted by ESPN. I’m sure they’ve attracted tons of new fans over the years, but I may never be one of them, just like you may never be swooned by soccer.
As long as ESPN has a contract in place, NASCAR will lead SportsCenter when something big happens even if it’s not particularly newsworthy. If something “big” happens in NASCAR and the NHL on the same day, which one do you really think will get priority? Unless the news involves Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are leading the newscast.
The poker boom is another example of ESPN telling you what’s trendy. Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series and because it was on ESPN and featured the pocket camera, the game exploded. Suddenly, everyone likes “Rounders” and hates Johnny Chan.
As I write this, ESPN is showing this year’s Main Event live. It’s not compelling at all because you can’t see the cards, but ESPN developed the brand and found a big enough audience to justify keeping it on the air.
Before ESPN had TV deals with the big money leagues like the NFL and MLB, they had to make do with events you rarely hear about anymore. One of the mothership’s first big endeavors was broadcasting the America’s Cup. They had to make their coverage compelling enough to prove that they could handle the first tier sports. Somehow, for a summer in the early ’80s, they made people care about yacht racing.
ESPN sets its own agenda and tries to jive that with what it thinks its audience wants. Right now, because John Skipper loves soccer and thinks that there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way, ESPN will invest heavily in soccer. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way it is.
You might still ignore it and may not care about Abby Wambach or Landon Donovan even after their dramatic World Cup goals. That’s fine, but at least for the next few years, that’s not going to change ESPN’s mind and it’s not going to change their programming decisions. Soccer isn’t going away anytime soon.