By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 16, 2014) US Soccer Players – The Champions League group stage starts this week, and once again raises the same old questions about what the tournament means in the United States. This is as big as it gets for the highest level of club soccer, with teams and players that are as close to mainstream as they’ve ever been here. So how does the Champions League stack up against the NFL?
One of the things the NFL does better than anybody else is create interest in primetime games that attract nationwide viewers. Sunday night and Monday night draw the kinds of TV ratings regular television no longer produces. The NFL is trying to add a third night with only one game on the nationwide over-air TV schedule. Whether or not Thursday works, CBS is spending a lot of money under the assumption that it will attract viewers.
Here’s how big the NFL is in the USA. CBS moved it’s top sitcom to another night to make room for football. They might have liked an easier start than a game caught up in the controversy involving the suspension of Ray Rice and the commissioner’s office, but the audience is already evident. People want to watch, and the NFL makes it as easy as possible.
The Champions League is a different story. All games but the final happen during the workday in the United States. That severely limits the live audience. Replay soccer used to be common. That’s no longer the case in the US, with seemingly any game of interest available. People have predicted the end of the cavalcade of live soccer on US TV for some time now, but there’s no evidence of it happening.
What the glut of programming creates is no single destination. NBC Sports is trying to create that by putting a Saturday Premier League game on nationwide broadcast TV. With the increased exposure, that also increases the viewers needed to make it a success. Fox tried the same thing when they had the Premier League rights. It’s not an option for any of the Champions League games leading up to the final. Other than the Olympics, same day delay just doesn’t work anymore with televised sports.
While awareness is obviously growing for the Champions League in the US, that doesn’t mean people will watch the games.
Team vs League
The NFL’s ability to set ratings records with their primetime games is due to the willingness of fans of other teams to watch. That’s part of the point of the Champions League as well. It’s a tournament built around general interest. Without that, it would suffer from the same issues as the Europa League. Partisanship certainly has an influence, but big club vs big club is a draw in its own right. That’s especially true in an overseas market like the USA.
Recognizable teams playing recognizable teams is what increases US interest. We see that every summer with the European club tours. The Champions League occupies the space of a super league for recognizable European clubs, and that’s the same space where we find the mainstream US sports fan.
The Champions League final vs the Super Bowl
UEFA can’t market the Champions League the way an unaffiliated promoter likely would. It’s not the place for a confederation or a governing body. Instead, there’s the stodgy music, the questionable festivities surrounding the final, and an almost stereotypically European spin on a final that should be the equivalent of soccer’s Super Bowl. Opera and interpretive dance vs fireworks and pop music. As conservative as the NFL is, somehow UEFA manages to outdo them.
It’s impossible for the Champions League to have a business model like the NFL because the Champions League isn’t really a league. It’s a tournament organized by a governing body. That hasn’t stopped UEFA from trying, imposing Financial Fair Play with the threat of booting the violating clubs out of European competition. But that’s only one aspect of a business model, and a prohibitive one at that.
UEFA can’t directly tell the elite clubs of Europe how to operate, not without reinvigorating the split between those elite clubs and UEFA itself. The threat of a breakaway super league remains. UEFA has to maneuver around that without upsetting the lucrative tournament they’ve built.
The NFL does what it wants, for better and worse. There is no overarching governing body, no rival leagues, and no true world championship. It’s an in-house operation, not burdened by transfer fees or even guaranteed contracts. What the NFL created on the business side drives their economy. No NFL team pays what the elite European soccer teams pay, even though NFL squads are larger.
What the NFL has to teach Europe only applies to a true league. The NFL isn’t in the tournament business. That changes when the elite European clubs opt for a true European league. When the elite of Europe are playing each other on weekends, the game and how it compares to the NFL changes.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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