SBJ/July 30-August 5, 2012/In Depth

The sky’s the limit?

EPL teams use exhibition matches, increased television exposure to grab a share of the U.S. sports landscape

Not content with playing only 18 games on these shores over two weeks in July, the English Premier League appears poised to become part of the American sports landscape on a much larger scale.

“Its popularity in the U.S. is soaring,” said Matt Mirchin, senior vice president of global sports marketing for Under Armour, which this month completed its first major partnership with an EPL team — a five-year deal to design the kits of Tottenham Hotspur. “Everyone wants to be in business with them.”

That’s because a lot more people are watching in the U.S. Broadcast deals executed with ESPN and Fox have made EPL matches more accessible than ever before in the league’s 20-year existence.

Chelsea’s Kevin de Bruyne (right) attempts a shot during the first half of an exhibition match July 22 at Yankee Stadium.
Photo by: AP Images
“A league needs fans and prospective fans to have access to its content,” said Billy Hogan, who was named commercial director at Liverpool in May after Fenway Sports Group bought the club. “ESPN and Fox have taken the Premier League’s popularity in the U.S. to much higher levels. The impact has been staggering.”

Fox’s broadcast of the Liverpool-Chelsea match Nov. 20 drew 1.67 million viewers, the network’s highest for an EPL game (see chart, below). ESPN this year drew more than 1 million viewers for a Manchester United-Manchester City match.

“In the U.S., if ESPN says it matters, it matters,” said Fred Popp, founder and CEO of TeamUp, a European sports marketing agency that works with Arsenal and FIFA, among other soccer organizations. “And, in a big way, ESPN said a few years ago that the Premier League matters. Their ratings and Fox’s will continue to climb, and all the visibility will have a positive effect on MLS, too.”

U.S. rights up for grabs

It’s hard to think of worse time slots than the EPL has on American television, with most matches starting on weekend mornings or weekday afternoons, when fewer people are watching television. Still, the league’s current TV partners see the league as the most attractive soccer league in the U.S. market.

“Everyone knows that the Premier League is the most watched sports league in the world. That is undeniable,” said David Nathanson, Fox Soccer Channel’s general manager. “It is the most watched soccer league in the U.S., hands
down.”

Networks expect the EPL to accept bids this fall for U.S. broadcasting rights, with ESPN and Fox already showing a lot of interest. NBC also is expected to be part of the negotiations.

In the past, the EPL has negotiated three-year deals for its media rights, and U.S. networks expect a similar arrangement this fall. Terms of the previous deals, and what the new agreements could bring, have not been released.

“The Premier League is a world-class property,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming. “We are happy to be media partners along with Fox. We’re obviously big believers.”

Both Fox and ESPN market their EPL programming heavily. In fact, Fox Soccer’s Nathanson goes so far as to say that Fox has “modeled” Fox Soccer Channel around the league.

Jersey sponsorships for EPL clubs

Club 2012-13 sponsor Ownership/controlling executive(s) Avg. annual value (millions)*
Manchester United Aon Glazer Family $31.5
Manchester City Etihad Airways Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan $31.5
Liverpool Standard John Henry Chartered $31.5
Chelsea Samsung Roman Abramovich $21.7
Tottenham Hotspur (a) Autonomy Joe Lewis $15.7
Sunderland Invest In Africa Ellis Short $15.7
Aston Villa Genting Casinos Randy Lerner $12.6
Arsenal Emirates Airline Stan Kroenke $8.7
Everton Chang Beer Bill Kenwright $6.3
Fulham FxPro Mohamed Al-Fayed $6.3
Newcastle United Virgin Money Mike Ashley $4.0
Swansea City 32Red Huw Jenkins $1.7
West Bromwich Zoopla Jeremy Peace $1.7
Stoke City Bet365 Peter Coates $1.6
Wigan 12Bet Dave Whelan $1.6
Norwich City Aviva Delia Smith, Michael Wynn-Jones $0.6
Queens Park Rangers (b) Malaysia Airlines/AirAsia Tony Fernandes, Lakshmi Mittal $0.4
Reading Waitrose Anton Zingarevich NA
Southhampton aap3 Markus Liebherr NA
West Ham United Sbobet David Gold, David Sullivan NA

* Conversion of British pound to U.S. dollar was done July 23 using the conversion calculator at XE.com, at the rate of 1 British pound = 1.55084 U.S. dollars.
(a) The logo featured on the jersey is Aurasma, Autonomy’s mobile platform.
(b) Malaysia Airlines sponsors home jerseys, while AirAsia sponsors away jerseys.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research


“If you look at our weekends, they are primarily focused today on the Premier League because it’s the most competitive soccer around,” Nathanson said. “The content there is so marquee.”

ESPN also uses the EPL as a way to market its overall soccer coverage. This year, for example, ESPN plans to relaunch its ESPNFC website around the opening of the EPL season in mid-August. ESPN originally launched the site earlier this year around the Euro 2012 tournament.

“We’re going to make a big deal and support that from a marketing perspective across all of our platforms,” Guglielmino said. “We’ll promote to those heavily. We’re trying to call attention to certain matchups on certain days that are big deals.”

For ESPN, the EPL works because its games occur in early morning time periods when the 24-hour sports network doesn’t typically offer live games.

“That early window — the 7:45 a.m. window — works for us both in the fall because it’s before we get on the air with college football, and then in the spring our schedule opens up a little bit,” Guglielmino said.

The fact that ESPN lost World Cup rights to Fox doesn’t dampen the company’s enthusiasm for the EPL, Guglielmino said.

“We’re still as big believers in soccer as we were going into the bidding for the World Cup,” he said. “That’s the nature of our business.”

No longer a curiosity

The days of the EPL as an American curiosity, a niche league enjoyed primarily by immigrants — and found on a distant cable channel — are long gone. All anyone needing proof had to do was turn on Fox Soccer to witness the scene at the exhibition match July 22 at Yankee Stadium between Chelsea of the EPL and Paris Saint-Germain of France’s Ligue 1.

It may have been a “friendly,” but it wasn’t meaningless to the 38,202 fans who filled all but the upper corners of the
Aston Villa played an exhibition match this month against the Philadelphia Union at the MLS club's PPL Park.
Photo by: Getty Images
baseball stadium in the Bronx. More than 90 percent of the crowd cheered for Chelsea. From home plate to past first base, from field level to the upper mezzanine, seemingly every supporter was clad in Chelsea’s blue jerseys.

Chelsea’s four-game American tour, which also included stops in Seattle, Miami and a match against the MLS All-Stars in Philadelphia, was branded by the team as “Here to Play, Here to Stay.”

Fans at Yankee Stadium lined up to receive a pair of gifts: a team poster celebrating the tour and a magazine, styled like a London theater program, with information on Chelsea players. The club also brought along its FA Cup and Champions League trophies for photo opportunities. Fans signed up for the photo op by providing their email addresses to Chelsea’s growing database.

“This is our sixth trip here in nine years,” said Chelsea CEO Ron Gourlay. “We work hard on these tours to make our mark in the communities. We don’t just come here to play games. We’re here for training, and the players love it because of the facilities and the fans. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a commercial [aspect] to it. The Chelsea brand has grown to enormous levels in the U.S. in the last three years. It’s nice to see Yankee Stadium filled with Chelsea fans.”

While in Canada with Liverpool, Hogan got a real sense of the global power of his new employer as fans in Rogers Centre sang the club’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” during warm-ups before the club’s match against Toronto FC on July 21.

“It was just amazing,” said Hogan. “A lot of us got the chills.”

Most-viewed EPL matches on U.S. television

Date Net Match Viewers (000s)
11/20/11 Fox* Chelsea-Liverpool 1,670
10/2/11 Fox* Arsenal-Tottenham Hotspur 1,626
9/18/11 Fox* Chelsea-Manchester United 1,611
2/5/12 Fox Chelsea-Manchester United 1,377
1/22/12 Fox Manchester United-Arsenal 1,258
 

Most-viewed EPL matches on U.S. cable television

Date Net Match Viewers (000s)
4/30/12 ESPN Manchester United-Manchester City 1,033
12/27/10 ESPN2 Chelsea-Arsenal 610
5/13/12 ESPN2 Queens Park Rangers-Manchester City 600
2/11/12 ESPN2 Liverpool-Manchester United 588
2/6/11 Fox Soccer Liverpool-Chelsea 579

* Aired same day tape-delay
Source: Nielsen

Hogan pointed out that the tours are beneficial to the EPL and Major League Soccer.

“You realize that we’re not in competition with MLS,” Hogan said. “MLS has a strong league, a growing league, and what’s good for our football and their soccer is good for all of us. You can be a Liverpool fan and a Toronto FC fan.”
In Toronto, Liverpool merchandise sales exceeded expectations.

“They sure did,” Hogan said with a laugh. “To be honest, we sold out of all our inventory before the game was over. We’ll need to bring more next time.”

At Yankee Stadium, the lines for Chelsea jerseys, caps, shirts, pins and scarves wrapped around the corridors of Yankee Stadium.

“The support was tremendous,” said Gourlay, who pledged to bring Liverpool back as early as next summer.

“Brand-building is about awareness first, affinity next,” said TeamUp’s Popp. “Touring is a long-term platform, but clubs have taken notice of Chelsea and Liverpool’s success in the U.S., and I’m sure you’ll see more clubs follow.”

Executives who work in the EPL, which was founded in 1992, always believed that its rise was only a matter of time.
“It requires a generation of great players to teach the game to children,” said Popp. “It took a generation to pay it forward, and people in the U.S. are seeing that the Premier League is the best league in the world. It’s faster, more exciting and played with reckless abandon. It’s like the NBA, but outdoors.”

Tom Fox, who moved to England three years ago to become chief commercial officer for Arsenal after a successful career in his native U.S., believes the increasing popularity of the World Cup was also a tipping point.

“American sports fans see the World Cup every four years and decide, ‘Let me give it a look,’” Fox said. “They might like what they see, but they really get turned on to soccer when they realize club play — especially at its highest levels, like the Premier League — is more entertaining than World Cup. Now we have our media partners like ESPN making our league more accessible, and it has just taken off. The next key for us is, we have to continue to capitalize on this growth.”

In what would be a surprising about-face, Arsenal could join the ranks of EPL clubs touring North America. For a decade, manager Arsene Wenger took his club to the Far East to train during its preseason tours. But Arsenal, capitalizing on its global fame, played this summer in Africa, and Fox said he could not rule out a visit to the U.S. in the near future.

“The business we’re in internationally is not selling someone a T-shirt,” Fox said. “We’re about making supporters feel like they are a part of our football club. Touring is a part of that. Like every club, we want to grow our base.”

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