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Brand It Like Beckham

When I was growing up we had great hope that soccer would take hold in this country as both a game to be played by young people and supported by their parents on the professional level ,with weekly televised games and strong leagues.

So far, the glass is only half full. Soccer has become a staple activity for young people, particularly adding a nationwide level of team competition for future soccer moms that was unavailable outside swimming and cheerleading practice a generation before.

But the game never caught on as a mass appeal TV sport.

That could all be changing, thanks to that Liberty Statue that welcomes all comers.

The explosion of the Hispanic population in this country has created a savvy soccer audience that could help drive the game onto the tube beyond the Spanish-language network staples and the brief, quadrennial, nod to the game during the World Cup.

I see more soccer pick-up games than football on my normal neighborhood jaunts, which is new. There have always been league soccer games on weekends, but those same kids often reverted to football or basketball ,or baseball the rest of the time.

Branding like Beckham won’t hurt either if the British star can stay healthy and generate some buzz in the nation’s second largest TV market.

ESPN is doing its part. It will give the 360 treatment to David Beckham’s first game with the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer. His move to this side of the pond (he had been playing for Real Madrid) was the biggest thing to happen to soccer since Pele took a bite out of the Big Apple, though at the time we all thought that would be the tipping point for televised soccer’s popularity here

The Galaxy game (quick, how many people knew L.A.’s pro team was the Galaxy?) is airing live in prime time Saturday night, July 21, on ESPN, as well as getting pre-game treatment on SportsCenter and online attention as well. I will be eager to see the ratings, and a breakdown between Hispanic and anglo audiences if I can get one.

I love soccer, but I wonder if they will have to do something to jazz up the game to hook the non-immigrant U.S. crowd. Say, hot tubs at the end lines or a 45-second shot clock. Those nil/nil games may be strategic gems, but it will be hard to capture any random TV surfers without regular waves of offense.

ESPN will have a skycam and robotic goal cams like the XFL, but those goal cams will need to capture some gooooooooooooaaaaaaaaals! if soccer is to capture the imaginations of sports fans whose games have been juiced by three-point shots, handicapped defensive ends and other tricks to boost the offense and the fan interest.

Not to sound prescient, but I received the following e-mailed release only a couple hours after penning the above:


NEW YORK, July 5, 2007 – Soccer has declared its independence in America – at least so far as TV viewers are concerned.  Yesterday’s (July 4) “Copa America” (American Cup) soccer match between Mexico and Chile, seen on Univision from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm, not only won its time period for New York’s WXTV, but it also emerged as the most watched TV sporting event in New York on Independence Day, regardless of language.

Fully 446,000 New York area TV viewers watched the Mexico vs. Chile match on Univision 41 (WXTV), Gotham’s premier Spanish-language TV station.  That’s more than double the 210,000 who tuned into tennis from Wimbledon, New York’s second most watched July 4 TV sporting event, on WNBC Channel 4, according to Nielsen Station Index (NSI) Local People Meter (LPM) average quarter hour (AQH) figures.

The Mexico vs. Chile match swept its time period in all key audience groups.  It was watched by 103,000 New York area TV viewers aged 18 to 34, 223,000 aged 18 to 49, and a whopping 236,000 persons aged 25 to 54 years old.  Fox TV’s WNYW Channel 5 placed second in each category with 76,000, 179,000, and 165,000 viewers respectively."

By John Eggerton