Will the Premier League kill Major League Soccer?

April 20, 2013

This past week, NBC announced that they will show every single match of the Premier League campaign in the United States beginning at the start of next season, which begins at the end of the summer in 2013.  This means that NBC will literally use its empire of networks to broadcast Premier League games from England during the weekends.  There is even a graphic going around, showing that on May 11th, 2014 – what is referred to as “Championship Sunday” or the last day of the Premier League season – there will be games on the following NBC channels: NBC, NBC Sports, USA, Bravo, CNBC, SyFy, Esquire, MSNBC, E! and so forth.  I’m sorry, but Premier League on SyFy seems to be quite a reach, but NBC has paid $250 million for the 2013 Premier League rights, and they want to do things the right way.  As their press release notes:

Details of the 2013-2014 NBC Sports Group Premier League programming include:

  • All 380 matches presented live on television with studio pre- and post-game coverage;
  • All 380 matches streamed live via NBC Sports Live Extra;
  • Games not aired on a designated NBCUniversal channel will be made available to distributors via Premier League Extra Time, a package of overflow television channels available at no extra cost for each of their customers who receives NBC Sports Network;
  • Championship Sunday – May 11, 2014, when all 10 Premier League matches will be available live on a different NBCUniversal channel;
  • 76 Spanish-language telecasts, 10 on Telemundo, 66 on Mun2;
  • More than 600 hours of Premier League original programming.

NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA: Every Barclays Premier League match will be streamed live via NBC Sports Live Extra, the NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktop, mobile and tablets and, in most cases, on the digital platforms of participating cable, satellite, telco and other video subscription services. The vast majority of Barclays Premier League matches will be streamed via “TV Everywhere,” available on an authenticated basis to subscribers of these services.

NBC happens to have the rights for Major League Soccer as well, which they pay $10 million a year for.  In this current deal, NBC shows usually one or two MLS matches a week, with the Premier League they will be showing around 10 matches a week through the season.  Some people have discussed that the deal would be beneficial for MLS, as it would draw more soccer fans to the NBC network who could then carry over watching Premier League matches to MLS matches.  I believe that this logic doesn’t fully fit.  First, the MLS matches would usually not transition smoothly with the Premier League, unless the MLS started playing at 10 or 11am, which would mean much less fans in the stadium.  At this point in time, fans in the stadium are the lifeblood of the MLS, as the revenues from television, once distributed, aren’t even worth a quarter of a team’s salaries for a season.  In this, the Premier League may not kill the MLS, but could draw some major attention away from the professional soccer in the U.S.

Time will tell how this deal affects MLS, but I personally think obtaining the Premier League rights was a great move by NBC.  For many years, I was part of a that crowd of people who paid extra money to get Fox Soccer on their cable plans to watch matches early on Saturdays.  Now, NBC will bring the Premier League to a national audience on over-the-air channels, meaning that people can watch certain Premier League matches without paying.  I think that this move could really help heighten the popularity of the Premier League, though I’d be curious to see how well ratings do on NBC during college football season.  The games wouldn’t overlap, but I am not sure how many college football fans will turn on their television sets early to catch Fulham play Everton.


Olympic hypocracy? Who should be punished for not trying to win?

August 1, 2012

The big news of the day in the Olympics is the removal of 8 badminton athletes from the games, including 4 South Koreans, 2 Chinese, and 2 Indonesians.  This year, Badminton was reformatted from a knockout tournament to group play, with teams then qualifying for knockout rounds based on their group play.  Those in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) said that this would be to improve the quality of play, and are already noting that it led to some incredible match-ups that one would not normally see this early into the tournament.  That may be true, but it also led to several teams realizing that the best strategy for them to advance in the knockout stages was to actually lose on purpose in the group stages.  Thus, the 4 pairs mentioned above were kicked out of the Olympics after not giving their all in matches.  The BWF, London Olympic Games Organizing Committee (LOGOC), and even fans pronounced this a great move as they said it went against the laws and spirit of the game.  Specifically, the BWF says that all players must give full effort in matches they play in.  One begs to ask: what exactly is “full effort”?  They also said that this may be a match-fixing mess waiting to happen, as teams found that the best way to avoid tough opponents in the knock-out rounds was indeed to lose.  One game in particular stands out with a Chinese team and South Korean team both trying to lose.  There is clearly a lack of effort, and the Chinese team celebrates with a high-five after losing the match.  The crowd realizing wait they have just seen, responds with very loud booing, and badminton became the headline of the Olympics today, but for all the wrong reasons.

At the same time, the Japanese women’s soccer national team employed very similar strategies in their final group stage match against South Africa.  Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki had already hinted in the Japanese media that 2nd place would be the goal to move through qualification for two reasons: the team would not have to travel for the knock-out round, and they would also be to avoid Brazil most likely.  Japan fielded a squad with 7 new members on the field, and despite enjoying a great deal of opportunities, couldn’t put one in the back of the net.  It was even said that Sasaki gave instructions to just run the match out to a 0-0 draw in the 2nd half when they knew that they were in the clear for 2nd place in their group.  So Japan’s master plan seemed to be working… until the Great Britain women managed a famous 1-0 victory against Brazil.  All of the sudden Japan’s plan has backfired and while they don’t have to travel, they are facing Brazil in the quarterfinals.

In the end, the LOCOG, IOC and FIFA said that Japan will not face any potential charges for not trying to score, as they did not violate any rules of conduct.  So for football (soccer) you don’t need to try, but for Badminton you do.  Someone explain this to me.

The lesson of the day seems to be to put full-effort into your matches as you never know what may happen.  However, it may also indicate a need for better scheduling systems, and further analysis of whether pool play or group stages really are better than knock-out tournaments.  If a federation designs a competition where there is incentive to lose on purpose, is it really the fault of the athletes who understand the system and do their best to try and get as far as they can in the tournament?  Purists would say that the athletes must give their all, but wouldn’t it also make sense to have competition designed to illicit such response from athletes?


The Role of Supporters

December 23, 2011

A good number of academic papers have considered the role played by supporters in the economic model of sports. I personally have a paper in the IJSF considering a particular theory surrounding home advantage in football (soccer), where we propose a monitoring theory: Once television became prevalent, players could no longer slack in away games and get away with it. The implication was that the supporters are what matters, rather than any of the other factors usually posited (familiarity with surroundings, etc).

Others have looked into whether supporters have a role influencing referees to add more minutes of injury time at the end of matches, and whether they influence referee decisions moreover. The literature is rich, it’s fair to say and I won’t do justice to it in this post.

I’m reminded of this by recent events at Premiership team Blackburn Rovers. Blackburn have had heady days in recent decades: They are, aside from the usual suspects (Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea), the only other team to have actually won the Premiership, hard to believe as that may be. In recent days, they were yet another top English team taken over by foreign owners as the closet xenophobic British press (and bloggers) have had some fun pointing out in recent years: They were taken over in 2010 by the Venky’s of India, to great fanfare.

However, all has not gone swimmingly for English football’s first Indian owners. They sacked exceedingly competent manager Sam Allardyce in December 2010 for no obvious reason, and replaced him with an complete unknown, Steve Kean.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fans weren’t overly excited by that appointment, and things have not gone particularly well since, and as of Tuesday this week, they sit at the bottom of the Premiership with just two wins all season. Tuesday however was notable in that it marked the latest high (or low) point of the campaign of Blackburn fans to have Kean sacked and replaced. As far back as their first win of the season (against Arsenal), Blackburn fans were stages regular protests against the manager.

On Tuesday, against Bolton, local rivals, farcical defending put Blackburn 2-0 down early in the game and it’s said the atmosphere in the stadium was “poisonous” – the Twittersphere was rife with Tweets from folk who left at half time in protest – including notably the Everton coach David Moyes. Blackburn put in a vastly improved second half performance but fell to a 2-1 defeat to sink to bottom (Bolton had previously been bottom of the table).

What this whole sorry episode suggests perhaps more than anything is the role fans play. Of course, we don’t know how Blackburn might have performed on Tuesday had supporters instead turned up to support their team instead of to protest against the coach (and also the owners now – typing Venkys and Blackburn into Google reveals a lot of vile against the Indian owners). Anecdotal evidence is pretty conclusive though; when a set of supporters decides against a coach, even if the owners try to persist with the coach, supports usually get their way. Abusive chants, poisonous atmosphere at games, abuse in the streets, abuse of friends, relatives, etc., all take their toll usually. It seems hard to believe that Kean can take much more of what he’s currently enduring in deepest, darkest Lancashire (it’s hard also to believe that Northern folk are generally perceived to be more friendly!).

Personally I can only think of one example where supporters have been proved wrong, and that was when Martin O’Neill took over at Leicester many years ago. After a few initial defeats supporters were protesting. A few years later and a few League Cups and European nights, I think they forgave him for those early defeats.

Fans would appear to be pretty powerful stakeholders in the model of the football club, casting their judgement on a particular manager or player, and usually getting their way even if those with the actual power (chairmen, managers, players) don’t agree.


This Week’s Football Corruption News

December 20, 2011

Police in Italy have made arrests relating to a match-fixing scandal in Serie B, the second division of Italian Football (soccer).  Included in the arrests are Cristiano Doni who has played for the Italian National Team and was even on the squad for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea.  While the arrests have targeted mostly Serie B players, the police are said to be investigating at least three Serie A matches.  This is not the first time that such issues have surfaced in Italy, but one of the suspects arrested is claimed to have stated that match-fixing has been prevalent in the league for the last ten years.  Doni’s arrest was no surprise, as he was banned for three and a half years from professional football by the Italian Federation earlier this year.

In other news, Sevilla (of Spain’s La Liga) President Jose Maria del Nido has received a seven and a half year prison sentence for his role in embezzling money from the Spanish town of Marbella.  In a curious set of circumstances, the club’s vice president has said that the sentence is unfair, and that del Nido should be allowed to continue as President of the club.  I wonder if anyone has ever run a football club from prison.


Did the “Beckham Experiment” work for the MLS?

November 22, 2011

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy won 1-0 in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final over the Houston Dynamo.  The Galaxy are lead by U.S. international Landon Donovan, as well as England’s David Beckham and Ireland’s Robbie Keane.  Notably, the game is the last before Beckham’s 5 year contract ends with the MLS.  Now the MLS is a curious league, as it is operated as a single-entity organization where the league holds all the player contracts.  This was done to originally keep costs in check so as to not repeat the failures of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  The strict salary cap rules were relaxed to allow players like David Beckham come to play in the league, with each team given the same number of exceptions in regards to players who do not count under the salary cap.  This has allowed players such as David Beckham, Theirry Henry, Robbie Keane, and many others to come play in the MLS near the end of their career.

I don’t think there is any doubt that David Beckham has had a significant impact on the MLS, but the question is whether Beckham was worth the large salary he was paid by the league.  This exact question was the focus of a research paper in the International Journal of Sport Finance by Robert A. Lawson, Kathleen Sheehan, and E. Frank Stephenson in 2008, entitled “Vend it Like Beckham: Beckham’s Effect on MLS Ticket Sales” (volume 3, p. 189-195).  In this paper, the authors conclude that Beckham increased attendance at stadiums by around 55%, and that he was probably worth the investment.  While it seems likely that MLS recouped the salary they paid Beckham, I wonder if the MLS has really just boosted the popularity of soccer in America, and not necessarily the league.

I point again to Sunday, a day when Liverpool played Chelsea and the MLS Cup final was held.  Not only were fans able to watch Liverpool vs Chelsea live early in the morning, but they could also watch the replay on Fox in the earlier afternoon, at the same time as the NFL was playing its early games.  The day was filled with sports, finishing with the MLS Cup occurring the same time as Sunday Night Football.  The numbers show that the MLS didn’t do very well in terms of ratings, even with David Beckham and other big names playing in the game.  USA Today noted that the Liverpool vs Chelsea replay had double the viewers as the MLS Cup Final.

Fox’s taped Chelsea-Liverpool soccer game Sunday afternoon drew an overnight TV rating that nearly doubled the rating for ESPN’s primetime MLS Cup Sunday.

Fox’s soccer got a 1.5 overnight, which translates to 1.5% of households in the 56 urban TV markets measured for overnights. ESPN’s Los Angeles-Houston MLS title game, which included stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan, drew just 0.8% of households.

This is not a good sign for the MLS, though their timing and placement of the finals was probably not the best.  Scheduling during the same time as a prime-time game between the Giants and Eagles.


Manchester City’s New Record Losses!

November 18, 2011

Manchester City has announced that they have achieved a new Premier League milestone, they have posted the worst losses for any club in a single year, at a sum of £194.9 million.  The team owned by Sheikh Mansour currently sits on top of the Premier League table, and seems to show that better performance (and potentially championships) can be won by just dumping money into a team.  UEFA has now implemented a “Fair Play” financial rule requiring teams to be more financially responsible if they are to be allowed to play in confidential competitions such as Champions League and the Europa League.  Man City’s losses would have gotten them banned in future years, but because the losses come before the accounting window begins, they are safe for now.

The ESPN soccernet article linked above did note that the change in financing has taken consistently mid-table Man City to top of the table, and while costs have increased, so has revenue.

The Blues are also pointing out that commercial revenue has risen 49.7% to £48.5 million and TV rights, thanks to the club’s third place Premier League finish, winning the FA Cup to end a 35-year trophy drought and a run to the last 16 of the Europa League, have increased 27.4% to £68.8 million.

The question is, will Man City be able to keep up their performance in future years with more limited ability to spend money because of the “Fair Play” rules.


Fox wins rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup

October 22, 2011

As I flipped between ESPN and FX (a Fox channel) tonight, I saw them broadcasting news that Fox had won the bid for the broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup in the United States.  The big news was made more so by the large numbers in relation to the bid.  Fox, Telemundo (an NBC held Spanish language channel) and Spanish language radio paid a combined $1.2 billion for the rights to the two tournaments.  Fox by themselves are going to pay around $425 million.  To put that into perspective the current right holders of ESPN and Univision paid a combined $425 million for the U.S. rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup.  They are saying that FIFA has really cashed in with this new mega bid, with the new rights holders (as of 2015) paying close to double the price than their previous competitors.  While the World Cup has become more popular in the U.S. in recent years, I am not sure that this deal is really worth it for Fox.

As I write this, I am having a bar scroll on the bottom of my TV saying that DirectTV (my television provider in the U.S.) is about to drop FX, Fox Sports, Fox Soccer Channel, and Fox Soccer Plus.  These would be all of the main channels through which the games would be broadcast in the U.S.  Naturally, I am not pleased, as Fox Soccer Channel is one of my main gateways to European soccer while living in the U.S.  While there is a lot of time till Fox wins the deals, I think the availability of the ESPN channels is much better, and makes me worry about whether I’ll be able to watch the games I want in the United States, once Fox takes over the rights.