If you watched the LA Galaxy-New York Red Bulls game Sunday night on ESPN2, you may have been caught off-guard during halftime by the familiar sounds of the Champions League anthem. ESPN, as you surely know, hasn’t shown the Champions League since John Terry’s famous missed penalty against Manchester United in the 2009 final. And yet, there was the anthem, silently accompanied by the news that Atletico Madrid’s match against Juventus will be on ESPN2 this Wednesday.
As it turns out, when ESPN sublicensed the Champions League from Fox to show games on ESPN3.com, they also nabbed the ability to show certain games on television. This is good news, because it means more soccer on your TVs. But I got to wondering: wouldn’t Fox want to keep a game featuring the reigning champions of both Spain and Italy?
Fox, it seems, has no interest in that. On Wednesday, instead of Atletico vs. Juve, Fox is going English. On FS1, Arsenal will play Galatasary, while Liverpool will go to Basel on FS2. These are good games; Basel in particular have a habit of toppling British opposition. Atletico-Juve, though, is a significantly better matchup. And if you look at Tuesday, it’s the same story. Fox shows both of the English teams in action (City vs. Roma and Sporting vs. Chelsea), while PSG plays Barcelona off in the ether.
In short, Fox clearly thinks that the Premier League is a bigger draw than anything else, and that games featuring English teams will draw more viewers. In this, they’re probably onto something; the Premier League has long been the most popular league in the U.S., due to our shared language, among other factors. Last October, Facebook data showed that Manchester United was the most popular team in most of the United States. Now that NBC shows every Premier League game, I imagine the English lead has been extended while La Liga languors on a channel most don’t have. Fox is looking to reap the rewards of NBCSN’s promotion of English teams.
But not all English teams are created equal. Manchester United, you might note, are not in this year’s Champions League. When Arsenal played Borussia Dortmund in the first Champions League matchday, 316,000 watched on FS1. That’s a good audience, higher than last year’s average. The next day, in the same time slot, Manchester City played Bayern Munich, and viewership dropped to 221,000. The game was closer, and arguably a better matchup, but had only 70% of the viewers. I don’t believe that suggests Dortmund are radically more popular than Bayern.
Fox isn’t completely off-base to focus on games involving English teams; they have the largest American fanbases. But this should be a guideline, not a strict rule. This week, I think they have it wrong, and they run the risk of alienating people who might like to see, say, Messi and Ronaldo. It’s always a balancing act when you have two channels to show eight games. Where Fox slips up, ESPN will pounce.