By J Hutcherson (Sep 11, 2018) US Soccer Players - For anybody with an ESPN+ subscription, the wonders of the UEFA Nations League awaited during the September friendly window. The idea that hardly any soccer fans would've come up with on their own sprang to life with varying returns. Big games designed to count did what big games designed to count tend to do. Down the divisions, the enthusiasm seemed to wane.
The problem with selling the rights to the entirety of a competition is that the organizers pass on some obvious problems to the broadcaster. This game you bought and plan to show? It's going to play out in front of a noticeably sparse crowd. You're also going to need to spend a surprising amount of the broadcast explaining what league this game is in, whether or not it factors into EURO qualifying, and so on.
It didn't take watching a lot of games to ID the Nations League problem. It's leagues of nations, begging the question why anybody without a rooting interest would bother with leagues B, C, or D. Well, other than the curiosity that comes with anything new and novel. It's a safe assumption that very few people rolled into work in Scotland the next day eager to talk about how they're top of Group 1 in League C at the expense of Albania and Israel. Yes, it's groups within leagues because of course it's groups within leagues.
So back to Group A where the best in Europe shine in an elite competition that will eventually crown a European champion that no one should confuse with the European Championship. The League A Group 1 opener saw Germany and France play out a scoreless draw in Munich. That game was on ESPN2, with color commentator Taylor Twellman mentioning a couple of times in the second-half that a game that felt like a friendly no longer felt like a friendly. That's the point that needed making, because without that separation an uncomfortable question emerges, reemerges, and eventually gets a little testy. What's the point?
UEFA has skirted that question for the most obvious of reasons. There's a willingness to pay for the rights for this quasi-league which is why all of those games are available on ESPN+ in the United States. It potentially deals with what may or may not be eroding turnouts and interest in friendlies. That's an old trope in soccer that normally comes up after a poorly scheduled and/or promoted friendly against an unexciting opponent or featuring an unexciting team.
It's easy to call what UEFA's Nations League is offering as games that sorta count, sorta like I've already done, but it's tough to shake that in this early stage. This isn't an answer to audience demand. It may not even be a response to audience choice, or at least the choice UEFA believes enough of their audience is making.
Maybe the choice to not fully engage with the friendly schedule is an overarching criticism of how FIFA is currently structuring the international calendar. Maybe there are too many organizers pushing too much content at an audience that is capable of picking and choosing what they'll spend to see in person and what services they're willing to subscribe to in order to watch at home. Maybe it's none of that and it's just that every game can't be a winner from an attendance and broadcast perspective.
That last one is the broadcaster's gamble in the modern era of sports rights. It seems like there's very little that's not worth something to some outlet in pursuit of live sports content. With that in mind, pro soccer is a treasure trove for a willing broadcaster. There are topflight leagues producing games that count all over the world. Why not add a way to increase the inventory of national team games that count?
That's UEFA's play, and they're making it fully aware that they could be constructing something valuable. If it doesn't work out that way, at the least all they've done is restructure some international windows. It might already count for more than that.
Following his team's 2-1 loss to Spain in League A Group 4, England coach Gareth Southgate said something worth stressing.
"We're under no illusions that Spain were the better team for long periods of that but they are brilliant at what they do and we are in the early stages of what we're trying to do....," he said. "Now we have a choice. We can either go back to our old style and we'll never be a top team, or we can keep trying to do what we do and suffer at times. We have got some players who can do it, others who are improving at it and for me it's the way I believe we should play."
Southgate could've said the same thing following a September friendly. It's doubtful it would've resonated, but he could've said it. Following a Nations League game, it already carries more weight. England lost at home to Spain in a game that counted. There are repercussions even in this early stage of a new competition. There's a feeling that this is simply more important. For now, that's a win for UEFA and the Nations League concept. At this stage, maybe that's enough.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Graphic courtesy of UEFA