SBJ/20100712/This Week's News

Soccer’s buzz: A bump or a wave?

The 2010 World Cup has been a huge success by just about any business metric. TV ratings are up significantly in the United States. Buzz around the sport is at an all-time high and a couple of the U.S. national team players — Landon Donovan and Tim Howard — appear to be the first domestic soccer stars to cross over into the mainstream since Alexi Lalas did in the mid-1990s.

But will there be a bounce? Can MLS or its network partners translate World Cup success into domestic bliss?

That’s the question being asked by media executives, ad buyers and soccer stakeholders. The consensus seems to be that any kind of bump in TV ratings, attendance or general buzz will be short term.

“Interest in the World Cup is certainly a positive for the sport,” said Jay Baum, managing partner of ad agency Mediacom. “I’m just not sure that it’s there yet.”

Scott Guglielmino, ESPN senior vice president of programming, agreed. “I would be very careful to look at the success at the World Cup and extrapolate that those ratings on other properties are going to increase with the same kind of ratings increases we’ve seen on the World Cup between 2006 and 2010,” he said.

Despite that caution, there are signs of optimism among several of soccer’s stakeholders.

Fox Soccer Channel is telling advertisers to expect ratings increases this year, though David Nathanson, the channel’s executive vice president and general manager, would not say how much the network plans to increase its guarantees.

“Hopefully, it’s not a bump,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s a long wave and we continue on the growth path that we saw before the World Cup.”

Though Fox Soccer’s viewership still is among the lowest of all cable networks, it has seen ratings growth in the past year.

The channel will try to capitalize on the World Cup momentum with a marketing campaign that highlights some of the tournament’s better known players and the leagues in which they play. The channel plans to roll out the campaign at some point this week.

“It’s our job to remind them that they can follow all the stars of the games they are watching all year long on Fox Soccer Channel, not just once every four years,” Nathanson said.

ESPN executives are similarly but less enthusiastically optimistic. The network’s executives still see soccer as a growth sport and remain bullish about its future, but believe it will take time to see any measurable viewership gains. It will continue to push the sport across all of its networks by offering eight soccer properties this year, including MLS, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and the U.S. national team.

“We’re not going to get off the throttle,” Guglielmino said. “We’re going to continue [to push the sport].”

MLS also could benefit as ESPN promotes the league as the place to find soccer this summer after the World Cup.

Historically, the league has struggled to turn interest in previous World Cups into attendance or viewership gains. Following the 2002 World Cup that saw the U.S. team reach the quarterfinals for the first time, average attendance and ratings remained flat. Following the 2006 World Cup, MLS’s average attendance increased 1.8 percent that season and ratings were flat at 0.2.

But MLS Commissioner Don Garber credits the 2006 World Cup with generating enough buzz and interest in the sport to help convince David Beckham to join the league as well as give Toronto FC a strong platform to launch its inaugural season. MLS viewership and average attendance also has increased since 2006. Total attendance rose 15 percent from 2.95 million to 3.4 million spectators between 2006 and 2009, and viewership increased 13.7 percent from 263,000 to 299,000 average viewers.

“We’re certainly not looking at the World Cup as having an immediate impact on our business metrics,” Garber said. “What we are looking forward to is a growing interest in the sport, a further breaking through to the general sports market and fertile environment to create business opportunities on and off the field.”

The league already has made some headway. Sponsorship sales are up, largely because of new deals with World Cup sponsors Castrol and Continental Tire, and licensed merchandise is up 12 percent year-over-year. The league also netted its most-watched game of the season on ESPN2 last week when Donovan returned to action with the Los Angeles Galaxy and 391,000 viewers watched the game.

But the league’s ratings will have to improve considerably to win over skeptics in the advertising community.

“MLS has always been challenging because the best players in the world are not playing in the U.S.,” Baum said.

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