Yes it’s lead in was a half hour Wonderbra commercial and yes the football vs. soccer comparison by Michael Strahan was unneeded and more than a tad insulting (or maybe it was more a statement about how far soccer still has to go in the States?), but “Brand Soccer” in the U.S. took another step forward Saturday with Fox televising live the Champions League Final between F.C. Barcelona and Manchester United from Wembley Stadium. Dropped on a quiet sports afternoon as a lead-in to baseball…yes a holiday weekend but one with no noise from NASCAR, the NBA or the NHL and little from baseball…the match was a two hour showcase for both the die hard soccer fan in the States who may not yet be an MLS convert, and for the casual fan who has chased his or her kids around a pitch and maybe has caught more interest in the game through the World Cup or the expanded efforts of MLS in its markets. It was also a good litmus test for Fox, who has invested and harvested large sums from the game around the world, and has put a good chunk into marketing the Fox Soccer Channel in the States (a great but sometimes hard to find tool for the sport in growing its footprint).
Moving the Champions League Final to broadcast television, despite the solid coverage ESPN has given elite club soccer as well as the World Cup, also helped enhance the image of the sport to a global audience, showing that Americans maybe, just maybe, can take soccer not just on the vaunted all-sports network but on a broadcast station, the home of so many other elite sporting events that Americans follow. Now will the ratings be huge? No. Holiday weekend, great weather, not huge marketing dollars put forth and no real American presence doesn’t lead to big numbers of people leaving barbeques to tune in. However more importantly was the willingness by Fox to show the game live, and to make the investment not just in putting up a feed but in making the show just a little more American to an American audience. It was more education and investment in the future than a sales and branding win for today. With the uncertainty of the 2022 Qatar World Cup now in the play, showing more elite soccer in broadcast TV also sends another message to officials that the game is indeed growing and more appreciated in the States than before. Should that bid come loose, Fox’s broadcast could be another good message to send to FIFA that the U.S. is the rightful home for that World Cup.
Regardless, it was another positive move forward for soccer in the States Saturday. A year that has seen MLS continue to grow as a property and a brand, and with it, more interest and understanding of the global game and its positive messages and elite play.