On Super Bowl Sunday, FOX Sports televised the English Premier League showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United. FOX has upped its commitment to televising soccer in the past year and went overboard in hyping the match, calling it ‘The Game Before the Game’ and ‘The Most Watched English Premier League Match in U.S. Television History’.
The game lived up to the hype, as Man-U rallied from a three goal deficit to earn a 3-3 tie at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea’s home stadium). It was a contest that wound up providing many talking points.
As for ‘Most Watched English Soccer Match’ ever to be aired on U.S. television, that’s not a very hard bar to clear – but it becomes a more difficult title to attain if FOX’s affiliates decide that they have something more worthwhile to air on a Sunday morning and does not televise the event.
As most everyone who follows my Twitter feed knows, I am huge on the English Premier League, and FOX Soccer Channel/FOX Soccer Plus are my god-sends, along with the 1-2 games a week ESPN does (with the incomparable Ian Darke). Watched it all weekend.
Arsenal piling on seven goals on relegation candidate Blackburn (worst three teams in the 20-team EPL get demoted to Championship Division at season’s end), then Stoke City/Sunderland playing in an absolute blizzard, then league-leading Manchester City beating Fulham in another wintry scene, and finally Newcastle United keeping their hopes alive for qualifying for next year’s European Champions League (top four from EPL get bids) by defeating Aston Villa.
The game goes on all winter and into the spring, although interrupted some weekends by the FA Cup (elimination tourney where English teams from all divisions participate) or by national team play (Euro/World Cup qualifying or exhibition matches). They play through cold, rain, and this past weekend cold/snow.
In the U.S. the televising options are actually better than would be in England, as EPL games played in the traditional 3 PM (London time) slot are blacked out in that country, in fear that the games airing live would hurt the live gate, not only for EPL, but for matches in the lower divisions.
And for all of you who tell me soccer sucks, you’re more than entitled to your opinion. Jim Rome despises the sport; I also have numerous friends who are not into soccer. That’s fine. I realize I’m not going to convert people trying to be the soccer missionary. If you stumble across the spectacle and realize the EPL to be an elite competition whose product far surpasses the NBA and NHL regular seasons, congratulations.
Which leads me to Manchester United/Chelsea, and my little local affiliate here in Milwaukee.
The EPL has been carried on FOX Soccer for several years now, with FOX Soccer+ being spawned a few years back. FOX Sports itself has slowly brought soccer onto FOX television. They have carried the Champions League Final the last couple years, and this year started sprinkling in EPL season matches. Two games were carried on a tape-delay basis during the NFL season, and two weeks ago they did their first live Sunday game (pre-game starting at 10:30 AM Eastern) with Manchester United v. Arsenal.
The 11 AM Eastern Sunday game (4 PM in England) is usually the EPL’s showcase game for the weekend, similar to the 4:15 PM Sunday doubleheader game in the NFL. This usually airs in the U.S. on FOX Soccer, with no chance of pre-emption. However I was in for a rude surprise with the Man-U/Arsenal fixture airing on FOX television.
My affiliate elected not to carry it.
In its place, FOX 6 Milwaukee carried the following:
- 9-10 AM – Fox News Sunday (Ari Kaufman would not be against that programming decision).
- 10-30 AM – ‘Discover Wisconsin’, about various attractions in my state.
- 10:30 – 11 AM – ‘Into the Outdoors’, show about nature/outdoors. And if you follow my Facebook feed you know I love nature/outdoors as much as anyone.
- 11 AM – Noon – The real kick in the pants, ‘Paid Programming’
I directed an expletive-riddled rant to FOX 6 Sports Twitter feed when I found the game not on, along with a couple follow-ups. The man who provides the content has nothing to do with programming, but I chose venting on him over an operator over the phone. If FOX 6 could have even put the game on its 6.2 digital feed that would had at least been a solution. That game re-aired on FOX Soccer a couple times over the next couple days, and I watched.
But that’s not the point. FOX television has decided to make an effort to promote EPL soccer. Fox Television brings huge ratings to its affiliates – if a station is reaping the benefits of carrying American Idol along with the NFL, including 10-11 Green Bay Packers games per year plus the playoffs and a Super Bowl every three years (which the Packers just happened to be involved in last year), then that station should be committed to ALL of FOX’s programming.
I feared that Man-U/Chelsea would similarly not be aired, and checked my local listings Saturday night, and found that the match would be aired on 6.2. I immediately thanked the Fox 6 Sports Twitter feed. It was not going to be on the main station, it wasn’t going to air in HD, but at least the game was going to be available.
Then Sunday morning came, and a funny thing happened, I realized I was not alone venting on the station; this time there were many others as well – who were not yet aware about the availability on 6.2. Meanwhile, in an incredible twist of irony, the screen went dark on FOX News Sunday, the last half of it aired with audio only and a ‘Technical Difficulties’ message on the screen. You have to like karma sometimes.
Despite the game being farmed out onto the 6.2 channel (and local commercials magically airing during the middle of the first half), the following became ‘trending’ on Milwaukee’s Twitter feed, despite the fact that no one here apparently cared about this game. David Luiz, Fernando Torres, rookie Man-U goalkeeper David de Gea, maligned defender Jonathan Evans, Danny Welbeck, match referee Howard Webb, and finally CNN’s Piers Morgan, who served as a studio analyst for FOX.
And then when Mexican International Javier Hernandez (a.k.a Chicarito) ends up scoring the late equalizing goal, here is what the mother-ship 6.1 station was airing, in case you are in the market for an $80 pillow (just tell me when waterbeds start making a comeback). And I hope Channel 6 enjoyed the switchboard lighting up from the South Side at that point, because the Latino demographic, they do care, big time.
I can guess what the statement would be from the station, because I’ve heard this before…
- They have to serve an obligation to carry X numbers of ‘community-based programming ‘ per week, usually on Sunday morning.
- The station does not want to break/amend contracts to carry programming that was signed months in advance, and perhaps before realizing FOX Sports was going to start carrying soccer games.
- Although there are those very passionate about soccer, truth is, it would not carry that much higher a number than the programming that usually airs.
This is nothing against the Fox6sports Twitter account, ran by a guy named Zach White, and is actually one of the better feeds I read – and took a lot of complaints on Sunday. But I’ve personally been on the other side of the equation taking calls from people with concerns/complaints about issues for the company I happen to be working for; it’s part of the equation. To use a Jim Rome term, it’s called ‘banging the monkey’. I don’t think that it is something that would be necessary for the reasons I stated earlier. But if affiliates across the U.S. are going to be like that, then I’d rather see the marquee matches carried on FOX Soccer.
But I was glad that some voices were heard locally Sunday morning, and hope that with one of the showcase games of the season, and perhaps the best game of the season, that the suits that run the station finally realize what the fuss was truly all about.