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Another EPL Season is Underway – How Does it Impact U.S. Soccer?

The 2015-16 English Premier League season started this past weekend with some very unexpected results but some very good television ratings. Saturday’s four matches on NBC, NBCSN & USA Network combined for 2.02 overnight rating which was the best ever in the United States for the EPL opening Saturday. This rating was up 43% from the prior record set last August. The 12:30pm ET match on NBC, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Swansea City, averaged a .93 overnight to rank as the best Saturday opener ever and topped last season’s NBC opener between Arsenal and Crystal Palace by 27%. Moreover the 7:45am ET match on NBCSN that featured Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the opening match of the EPL posted a .49 rating which was the best overnight rating in the early Saturday window.

Chelsea defender John Terry is shown a red card in the defending champions' opening game against Swansea.
Chelsea goalie Thibaut Courtois is shown a red card in the defending champions’ opening game against Swansea.

The results were surprising to say the least. Arsenal, who many considered a favorite to be atop the league after picking up Petr Cech in the off-season, dropped a 2-0 home match to West Ham. Defending champions Chelsea had a frustrating 2-2 draw with Swansea City. Liverpool were able to pull out a last minute 1-0 victory at Stoke City behind Philippe Coutinho’s “goal of the week” worthy winner. Manchester United squeaked by Tottenham in an evenly played contest 1-0. And yesterday, Manchester City impressed everyone in the way in which they beat West Brom 3-0.

Arsenal's big signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.
Arsenal’s big off-season signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance in net as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.

One of the things we know about US sports viewers is that they like stars and that they like big events, especially when it comes to sports outside the “big 4” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). People in the U.S. are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16 million viewers) on ESPN, the largest rating at the time for a soccer match on ESPN. Also of note, the match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision, as did the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team. These numbers suggest that soccer interest in growing in this country.

Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago's Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belguim in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.
Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago’s Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belgium in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.

Having said this, over half of the goals in the World Cup were scored by players who play in the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. With NBC paying the Premier League more than $80 million annually to air every match of the season, Americans can now watch the stars of the World Cups on a regular basis. The U.S. viewership of the EPL has steadily climbed since 2007. Comparatively to Major League Soccer, where ESPN, NBC and Univision pay a combined $30 million, viewership has stayed relatively stagnant since 2009. Within the MLS television deal, many of the games are only available locally or with the MLS Live Subscription. This has caused very strong local fan bases (some of which rival the support of MLB, NFL and NBA teams). Along those same lines, attendance has increased over the last 14 years, with total attendance topping 6 million each of the last two seasons.

Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC.
Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC against the Montreal Impact.

The good news is soccer is growing as a sport in popularity in this country. The EPL is a more watched league, as it should be for the average sports fan. After all, the EPL is still a better product. Something Major League Soccer realizes it has to do a better job of is diverting stars (in their prime) away from the EPL and into the MLS. This year the MLS was able to do a substantially better job of this in getting Kaka to Orlando City, David Villa and Frank Lampard to New York City FC, and Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, they’ve been able to retain U.S. stars like Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) away from Europe and back into the MLS.

 

Needless to say, the EPL looks to continue to maintain its dominance after a very entertaining opening weekend, as it clearly is the most popular soccer league in the world. While it may not be the best thing in the world for MLS, the continued rise in U.S. viewership numbers of the EPL speaks very well to the future of the game in this country.

The 2015 ESPYS

On Wednesday evening in downtown Los Angeles at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater, ABC and ESPN put on the 23rd annual ESPY Award Show. Actor and comedian Joel McHale hosted the award show, and spared no one in the audience, with jokes about Donald Trump deporting Triple Crown jockey Victor Espoinoza to Mexico, Super Bowl runner-up Russell Wilson choosing to throw and not run the ball on the goal line against the Patriots, and the lack of action in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. While McHale, like most previous ESPY hosts, set a tone of lightheartedness through comedy, the show simultaneously highlighted some stories that transcend sports to bigger issues.

Joel McHale hosted the 23rd ESPY's and took a number of digs on the world's top athletes in his opening monologue.
Joel McHale hosted the 23rd ESPY’s and took a number of digs on the world’s top athletes in his opening monologue.

One of these heavier stories was that of Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still and his cancer-fighting daughter, Leah. The two were honored for the Jimmy V Perseverance Award because of how they served as a beacon of hope for other families facing similar battles. In June 2014, Leah was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer that left her with a 50-50 chance of survival. Devon was unable to concentrate on football that summer and so the Bengals placed him on the practice squad, which meant Leah would still be covered by the team’s health insurance policy. Devon delivered a moving speech stating, “I always used to dream about how I was going to be able to show [Leah] so much about life, but in the five years I’ve been with [her], she has taught me more about life than I could ever do.”

Cincinnati Bengal Defensive Tackle Devon Still and his daughter Leah, who has been battling a rare form of pediatric cancer, were honored with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.
Cincinnati Bengal Defensive Tackle Devon Still and his daughter Leah, who has been battling a rare form of pediatric cancer, were honored with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.

Another moving story was that of Lauren Hill who was honored for the Best Moment. Hill was a Division III women’s basketball player at Mount St. Joseph’s who inspired people with her fight against brain cancer. Her dream was to just play in one college basketball game. The NCAA agreed to move Mt. St. Joseph’s opening game against Hiram College up by two weeks because her condition was deteriorating. Xavier University offered it’s 10,000 arena so more people could attend the game, and sure enough tickets sold out in less than an hour. Hill inspired people with her fight against brain cancer and helped raise over $1.5 million in cancer research before she lost her battle to the disease on April 10th. Her parents, Brent and Lisa Hill, accepted the award on her behalf.

Brent & Lisa Hill, parents of Lauren Hill, accept the award for Best Moment. Lauren was a Division III women's college basketball player who died of brain cancer but was able to play in Mount St. Joseph's opening game and help raise $1.5 million towards cancer research.
Brent & Lisa Hill, parents of Lauren Hill, accept the award for Best Moment. Lauren was a Division III women’s college basketball player who died of brain cancer but was able to play in Mount St. Joseph’s opening game and help raise $1.5 million towards cancer research.

As is tradition with the ESPY’s, the big moment of the award ceremony was the presentation of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The Arthur Ashe Award was awarded to Caitlyn Jenner – the transgendered woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner delivered a very emotional speech where she thanked her family for unconditional support and urged acceptance for others who are transgendered. As you might imagine the award presentation was met with mixed responses and some controversy, but she received a standing ovation from the star studded audience after the 10-minute speech.

From the stage, Caitlyn Jenner thanked Diane Sawyer, who interviewed her in an interview on ABC in April and helped break the news to the world that she was becoming a woman. Noting her powerful celebrity platform, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and current reality TV star vowed “to do whatever I can to reshape the landscape of how transgender people are viewed and treated.” Bruce Jenner was the epitome of masculinity as the 1976 Decathlon Olympic Champion with big muscles and supreme athleticism, and so this announcement was all the more surprising. Coming on the heels of the gay marriage rights announcement, Caitlyn Jenner’s story and this award seemingly gained extra attention especially among social right activists.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, was the 1976 Olympic Decathlon World Champion won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, was the 1976 Olympic Decathlon World Champion and won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage after coming out as a transgendered woman.

The award was marked with controversy when RadarOnline.com reported Wednesday that Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN suggesting the network give her the Ashe award in exchange for plugs on her upcoming E! documentary series “I am Cait.” Allegedly, Jenner’s representatives approached ESPN, prior to the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer, forming an agreement to do the interview on ABC in exchange for the Arthur Ashe Award. Disney owns both ABC and ESPN.

Whether or not these reports are accurate, some have expressed disagreement with using the ESPY’s as a platform for such issues like gender identity and transgendered equality. And while these topics are controversial in nature, it seems by the rating numbers and the audience reaction, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage was extremely well received. The three hour show averaged a 2.2 rating/8 share in adults 18-49 and 7.7 million viewers overall on the ABC stations from 8 to 11pm. These numbers more than tripled last year’s telecast on ESPN which did a demo rating of 1.1 and only about 2.2 million viewers.

The US Women's Soccer Team won the Best Team of the Year Award.
The US Women’s Soccer Team won the Best Team of the Year Award.

Other highlights of the show included the US Women’s Soccer team taking home the Best Team of the Year, Rob Gronkowski winning Best Comeback Athlete, Odell Beckham Jr’s one-handed catch taking Best Play, Steph Curry capturing Best Male Athlete and the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX winning the Best Game Award.

The ESPY’s once again proved to the world the unifying effect sports have on society and how sports can effectively be used as a vehicle to bring attention to widespread global issues.

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