By J Hutcherson (Jan 22, 2019) US Soccer Players - At some point, it's a safe assumption that European soccer will raise its head just enough to draw the full attention of the major North American pro sports leagues. It hasn't happened yet, regardless of the boosters who want to plug the Champions League, Premier League, or the Bundesliga into the conversation. The ratings aren't there, even if the summer touring season points to the nationwide appeal of top-level club soccer in the United States. That might be good news for Europe.
Sports business as we know it is an American invention. The franchise model with owners as the primary movers and a league commissioner working for them comes from the United States. So does exploiting multiple revenue streams, convincing municipalities to pay for stadiums and training centers, and battling players unions over revenue. The recent success of the Premier League is down to their ability to follow the American model when it comes to selling television rights, and it works. That league has more money to spend because of local and international broadcast deals, separating them from the rest of Europe.
Though the dollar amounts have increased, for now, the European leagues and the Champions League aren't in the same conversation as the major American sports when it comes to TV. College football and basketball are also above pro soccer in the revenue table, showing the disparity between what this market values and what might have potential. Add to that the risk that all of this is happening in a sports rights bubble, where the valuations across the board are too height to justify the audience. That normally means what advertisers are willing to spend to access that audience.
Pro sports business has learned to pride itself on offering live events in an era where the viewing audience likes to save most things for later. That normally doesn't happen with sports, so the value increases as advertisers look for ways to get people to actually watch their ads. This is the current market, with people wanting to stress what soccer offers. A two-hour time slot, shirt sponsorship, ad boards, and overlays to compensate for the lack of commercial breaks. The drawback for Europe is most of their inventory of games happens at times when the bulk of the American audience is at work, asleep, or doing something else on a weekend morning.
That means less competition and less attention from the traditional sports leagues. Simply put, European club soccer is rarely a direct competitor. They rarely share time slots, even on NFL Sundays when the overlap normally ends after the early football games. No US pro sports league is overly concerned about what European soccer might do with weekday games. The competition in those slots isn't serious.
Whatever success the European leagues find, led by the Champions League where every game but the final is on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon East Coast time, it's not going to factor enough here. The idea that all of a sudden those midweek daytime games are going to challenge the ratings for prime time games overlooks practicality. It's also unlikely that there's going to be any challenge for the major US leagues over advertising dollars.
So why is this a good thing for Europe? It's simple. Look at how the leagues promote themselves here. It's not in competition. It's not even really in concert. It's more about taking advantage of a revenue stream that may only last as long as the next TV deal, staging friendly tours where they're booked by a promoter, and in almost every way mitigating the risk. Sure, some leagues and teams have opened US offices and talked about affiliate deals, but that brings in the potential for tapping an under-scouted player pool and recouping costs through the transfer system. Again, it's about taking advantage right now.
It's the smart move. That pragmatism is paying off more for the Champions League and the Premier League, but it's also not pushing other leagues to act. La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga have to see that there's no sense in trying to outplay each other in the US. The Premier League might be winning, but there's a point that no league is losing. We're not seeing leagues completely shutout of the market for the sake of spending on another. The Premier League gets more, but it's not just the US fueling that.
It became a cliche a couple of decades ago that the European super clubs are global businesses. That doesn't necessarily require acting like a global publicly traded company in the pursuit of profit. There's something to say for the advantage play, especially in a sports market like the United States where there are so many options.
None of the European leagues are positioning themselves as an alternative to the major pro sports leagues. It's not about competition. It's about a market that will bear the costs for European soccer right now. That those costs have helped tilt the market back in Europe has nothing to do directly with the United States. We're in an era where pro sports rights packages have value here right now. All the European leagues are doing is joining in.
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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Photo by Mike Lawrence - ISIPhotos.com