No World Cup, but plenty of soccer on TV this summer

AP News
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Posted: Jun 10, 2016 9:53 AM
No World Cup, but plenty of soccer on TV this summer

For American soccer fans, the games will start Saturday morning and roll on with only brief breaks for about 14 hours.

The quintuple-header of major international tournament matches is the first of six on tap in the next week-and-a-half. The Centennial Copa America and the European Championship take place on different continents and are broadcast by different companies in the United States. From the perspective of TV viewers, it's just a lot of elite teams and big-name players on the air back-to-back-to-back.

Audiences for international soccer have been steadily — and sometimes rapidly — swelling in the U.S. in recent years, punctuated by massive numbers for the men's and women's World Cups the last two summers. This Soccer Summer is an opportunity for networks heavily invested in the sport to keep the momentum going, along with a test of how many Americans will watch events that aren't World Cups.

"What made the Women's World Cup so significant is that it became a cultural event in this country," said David Nathanson, the head of business operations for Fox Sports, which broadcast that tournament in 2015 and airs Copa America this year. "We believe that the combination of soccer that's happening this summer has a chance to do the same."

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez (Copa America) and Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Euro 2016) are all set to play, not to mention 28 of the top 30 teams in the current FIFA rankings.

And at No. 31 is the U.S., which is both hosting and playing in this special Copa America commemorating the 100th anniversary of South America's championship. Nations from North and Central America and the Caribbean join South American powers in essentially a made-for-TV event.

For American television, it has the benefit of prime-time games, the buzz of the matches coming to cities around the country and the popularity of the U.S. and Mexican national teams. The question for fans is how to value this special edition of the tournament; the regular Copa took place last year. Brazil star Neymar is not taking part — after negotiations between his club, Barcelona, and Brazil's federation, he's suiting up only in this summer's Olympics, where rosters are limited to players under 23 with three overage members per team.

The European Championship in France on ESPN boasts the tradition of its significance to the continent's mighty squads. Because of the time difference, matches take place in the morning and afternoon in the United States.

The Americans' 4-0 win over Costa Rica on Tuesday greatly enhanced their chances of advancing to the knockout round — and creating at least one more chance for Fox to attract the ratings that come with a U.S. game. Tuesday's victory averaged 1.6 million viewers on FS1.

"It's very unique for a network to be able to wrap itself around your national flag," Nathanson said.

These days, though, the appeal of the U.S. matches isn't just patriotism but viewers ready to dissect every decision by coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

"There's no question as the United States matures into a genuine soccer nation, the expectations are higher," said Fox executive producer David Neal.

Interest in the two tournaments will reflect the growing sophistication of American fans in other ways, as well. They also want to watch Argentina and Messi. Or Portugal and Ronaldo, who is "going to draw a lot of attention from fans who are not avid soccer fans," said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's senior vice president of programming.

Those viewers may not watch Real Madrid games over the course of the Spanish league season, he added, but they "will tune into the Euro — based on nationalism, based on it's a big event, short story, happens over a month so it's not a huge commitment for a fan who's not avid."

While ESPN and Fox executives will each contend why their tournament is bigger, they recognize the value of one event lifting interest in the other.

"In some ways, it's Television 101 — it's taking an audience and creating a habit," Nathanson said. "The fact we have this tournament happening the entire month, we're thrilled if people are watching soccer in the morning then tuning in to watch soccer in prime time on Fox."

Both companies plan considerable discussion of the games taking place on a different network. And there will be plenty of broader soccer talk, too. Guglielmino noted that many of the prominent players taking part in the two tournaments will be the subject of transfer rumors that more and more American fans closely follow.

"All of that surround information is at a new level," he said.

For Fox, this is also the unofficial start of the buildup to its first men's World Cup broadcast in two years — and a chance to show how that coverage might look.

"We want to thread the needle from tournament to tournament," Nathanson said.