The Situationist

Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?

Posted by Jason Chung on August 14, 2007

(Author’s note: I am an avid soccer fan and fully support its growth in North America.)

Can David Beckham and ESPN save MLS?

In a previous post, I argued that ESPN has the power and credibility to kill a professional sports league; this post asks if it can breathe life into a fledgling one.

* * * *

ESPN has gone soccer mad, particularly for its Major League Soccer (MLS) variant. Long ridiculed for its microscopic ratings and substandard level of play, the MLS has recently received a major credibility boost and marketing surge with David Beckham’s signing by the Los Angeles Galaxy from Spain’s famed Real Madrid. His initial agreement to play in America last January was greeted with tremendous fanfare by both domestic and international media, and since his arrival in the United States the media crush has continued at a breathtaking pace – particularly on ESPN.

Despite the Worldwide Leader in Sports’ boundless ballyhoo and the introduction of a mega-star into Major League Soccer, there is little evidence that John Q. Public has yet to catch soccer fever. The MLS’ record television ratings and strong attendance figures in the wake of Beckham’s arrival are no doubt welcome news, but a hopeful long-term prognosis is belied by a closer examination of the facts. Beckham’s North American debut consists of an abysmal 1.0 television rating which, though markedly better than ESPN’s admittedly “flat” average rating of 0.2 this season, is still lower than the much-maligned NHL’s record-low 1.1 rating for the Stanley Cup Finals between Ottawa and Anaheim. Furthermore, the attendance spike may be a mirage of sorts as it seems to be heavily concentrated in places that Beckham is due to play.

Why, then, is ESPN continuing the hype in the face of apparent American apathy?

In a word: money. ESPN believes that it can influence American perceptions and preferences significantly over time. And it is willing to make that sort of investment in soccer because doing so would pay off. As reported by multiple sources, ESPN now owns a financial stake in the success of MLS due to the fact that it is finally paying rights fees – to the tune of $20 million per year – to broadcast MLS games. The new contractual agreement between the league and ESPN binds the network to pay the league, not only to broadcast games, but also to “bear the burden of making sure MLS programming is successful.” At the announcement of the new deal between ESPN and MLS, ESPN executive vice-president John Skipper outlined several methods the network would use to grow the game including increased exposure for MLS on the ESPN’s internet and mobile services and “likely” increased exposure on Sportscenter, its flagship sports news show. Skipper concluded that “[i]f we get ESPN behind soccer in this country, it is almost impossible for me to believe that we can’t move this forward.”

Skipper’s quote would seem to indicate that ESPN executives are well aware of their agenda-setting power. Popularized by social psychologists Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, agenda-setting theory hypothesizes that the media shapes reality by “choosing and displaying news.” By analyzing presidential campaigns and measuring people’s reactions, McCombs and Shaw found that the public learns about issues “in direct proportion to the emphasis placed on the campaign issues by the mass media.” As noted in 1963 by the University of Wisconsin’s Bernard C. Cohen, “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling its readers what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”

Troublingly, ESPN is not only aware of its power to influence what matters in “sports,” it is willing to exploit its agenda-setting power for its own commercial benefit – even if that means exerting pressure on its editors to show more highlights of its sports properties and ingrain the sport in the American collective consciousness.

Most journalists and editors, particularly in the realm of sports (and specifically ESPN), tend to deny or ignore the role that they play in agenda-setting. As ESPN vice-president of studio productions Craig Lazarus claims “There is this notion that we drive a sport’s popularity . . . but I think we reflect it.” During a radio interview on Toronto’s FAN 590 in which I defended my previous article, sportscasters and producers Doug Farraway and Gerry Dobson also advanced that very same “consumer is sovereign” line of thinking when defending ESPN’s NHL coverage. They asserted that it is viewers and listeners that determine their news priorities. The claim is that consumers or fans have fixed preferences, and the media simply competes over viewers given those (exogenous) preferences. The viewer’s disposition controls while the situational influence of the media is irrelevant.

As logical as that simple model is, it is also wrong (or, at least, vastly exaggerated). In their 1999-2000 series of articles on the problem of “market manipulation”(see Westlaw, Westlaw, and SSRN), Doug Kysar and Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson detailed how sellers — from gas stations to grocery stores — manipulate consumer perceptions and preferences routinely. McCombs and Shaw, as already noted, came to a very similar conclusion with respect to news coverage. Can it be that sports media and the selling of sports is somehow different and immune from manipulation? Quite the contrary. To an extent nearly impossible with hard news, sports journalism seems open to manipulation given its relatively trivial content (at least in comparison with hard news) and highly subjective nature in measuring the “newsworthiness” of stories. It is hard to believe that editorial control does not yield, even subconsciously, to corporate interests.

Subjective analysis of ESPN broadcasting seems to validate these concerns. After years of ESPN marginalizing the game and its American league, MLS is suddenly the lead segment on PTI and analyzed on Around the Horn, David Beckham’s MLS advertisements are splashed across multiple ESPN properties, other ESPN ads are proclaiming that “You’re a soccer fan, you just don’t know it yet” and MLS games are now given the “ESPN treatment” with regular game nights plus requisite hype. In addition, Beckham’s North American debut received more production support than many championship games in the traditional Big Four American sporting leagues with 19 cameras and was treated as on par as a media event as the first Monday Night Football game in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Game 7 of an NBA playoff series.

When pressed, ESPN’s upper management acknowledge highlighting ESPN products (such as leagues they have a financial stake in) more prominently, even during news broadcasts. Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice-president for news, admits that corporate affiliations influence certain segments during ESPN’s flagship news show Sportscenter. When discussing the rise of Arena Football League (AFL) highlights on Sportscenter in the wake of ESPN’s purchase of a share in the league, Doria admits:

We are clearly paying more attention to Arena Football than we would have if the games were not on [ESPN]. I could lay it all off on the resources that come with rights, but when we are trying to grow a sport, it means we get a little ahead of the curve to drive the interest up, but we don’t go overboard.

Further corroboration of ESPN’s agenda-setting behaviour comes from its on-air talent, who occasionally acknowledge and lament upper management’s desire to manipulate coverage for financial gain. In 2006, ESPN College Gameday’s Chris Fowler wrote:

Chris Fowler

For 13 seasons, the locations of the GameDay road shows have been editorial decisions based on the college football landscape. The basic principle was to (almost) always come from the site of the “biggest game,” or occasionally, “the best story…”

Now, the philosophy has been rethought by upper management. For the first time, the competitive landscape of football programming is a frequent consideration. Serving the needs of ABC’s new prime-time package of games is often a priority. The decision on GameDay’s site is less a clear-cut “best game” philosophy now and is more complicated, made on a landscape where terms like “synergy” and “branding” live.

This sort of evidence from among the ranks of its own reporters suggests that ESPN is ignoring the relative newsworthiness of stories and pushing their own products in the interests of corporate success. By agenda-setting and influencing coverage of certain ESPN-friendly events, the network is trying to “grow” its own products by altering the viewing behaviour and interests of its audience. As noted by one irate ESPN watcher, agenda-setting may be for losers, but it is alive and kicking at the Worldwide Leader for Sports. The bottom line, not the consumer, is sovereign.

The question then becomes, will ESPN’s agenda-setting succeed? Recent evidence seems to indicate that too much attention and hype can backfire when promoting an inferior product. Unlike other sports leagues, such as the NHL, MLS faces a unique challenge as superior soccer leagues are available on U.S. airwaves, such as Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League, and can be readily compared to MLS. U.S. soccer legend and L.A. Galaxy president Alexi Lalas aside, very few believe that the quality of play offered in MLS is comparable to the top leagues in the world. Even American soccer fanatics strongly dispute the notion that any MLS club can compete in the top leagues of Europe due to the relative paucity of skilled players. So, yes, ESPN exerts considerable informational and normative social influence on sports fans (as discussed in my previous post regarding ESPN and the NHL). Nonetheless, even it cannot easily mask the more or less unambiguous fact that the quality of play in MLS is less than that on other channels.

Recent reports suggest that this problem will not be rectified anytime soon and the league will have an uphill battle attracting top talent to its shores. MLS is mostly treated as a glorified golden parachute for aging European “name” talent (such as former Arsenal legend Sol Campbell). Unfortunately, in other words, it is perceived very much like the defunct North American Soccer League was. In addition, with a league-imposed salary cap of only $1.9 million USD and only one designated player allowed per team, MLS clubs are financially unable to attract skilled complementary players. Even Beckham, talented as he is, is considered by many to be overrated and over the hill. Simply put, casual sports fans who discover that they are soccer fans, are unlikely to remain fans of the MLS for very long. The MLS play simply does not match ESPN’s manufactured hype.

Thus, ESPN’s current marketing of MLS risks raising public expectations too quickly. As Situationist contributor Tim Wilson and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert have taught us in their work on affective misforecasting, the gap between anticipated feelings and actual feelings are typically quite wide. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that aggressive marketing may be successful in getting people to try the product once but if raised consumer expectations haven’t been met repeat business is unlikely. As the study’s lead researcher Vanessa Patrick of the University of Georgia notes “too much hype can be detrimental.”

The lesson, then, is that while ESPN has the incentive and some ability to influence what sports fans watch and like, there are limits to what they can pull off. Even if ESPN’s agenda-setting behaviour is successful in the short term by attracting new viewers to the sport, keeping a loyal fan base will prove difficult.

In sum, although ESPN may be able to “kill” the NHL, I doubt they can bring to life a second-tier soccer league. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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17 Responses to “Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?”

  1. Tony said

    So how does ESPN look beyond the immediate surge of attention and create a long-term relationship with the American soccer fan? It’s tough but I think Beckham can still be part of that answer. He has opened the door to thousands of new homes and created a new MLS fan base set upon the promise of his potential. Whether or not he delivers on his potential ESPN will still use Becks to introduce the other hidden personalities in the MLS. Not necessarily Donovan – he’s been out there awhile. The others that we don’t know about. You want fans in each market to learn about the players they get to cheer for. Give Beckham an entourage. He needs MLS pals that he can bring attention to so that when he’s moved on to acting or managing his Academy or whatever, he has tried to replace himself. Maybe he takes a young player under his wing to show him how to grow as a professional, or another aging star and breathes life into his game. Maybe he has a nemesis in New York or Chicago that tried to hit him and he creates a rivalry. How great would the build up to that game be! There has to be a million stories that Beckham’s limelight can spill into. That is the way the MLS keeps our attention beyond the Beckham Effect.

  2. Dan said

    Here’s the other thing – MLS is also a loss-leader for the World Cup. Every four years, soccer in this country gets a boost from a huge event. That wasn’t true for the NASL in the 70’s, since the World Cup’s potential here hadn’t been tapped yet. The Stanley Cup is where hockey peaks, but MLS ratings aren’t yet indicative of soccer’s overall popularity.

    So there’s a good deal of wiggle room for MLS, especially since the rights are so amazingly cheap, even as a throw-in to World Cup coverage.

    Eventually, MLS will have to deal with post-Beckham. The NASL had three years of Pele, a year of Beckenbauer afterwards, then had nothing to market but Giorgio Chinaglia. Not coincidentally, the NASL promptly lost 17 teams. MLS is hopefully planning for the post-Beckham era now, and I’d be very surprised if part of that didn’t include the World Cup.

  3. [...] – Finally, are feeling good about where MLS is these days?  Wanna stop? [...]

  4. Conor said

    I think that the MLS is built upon the strenght of the young American players that are coming into the league and the outstanding condition of youth soccer in the US, and the rise of our national team, as legit competitor (competitor not contender yet). When the NASL was around we had a poor national team program and no real american talent coming into the league. I feel that they league will continually improve with the quality of American players we can produce. So good move by the MLS to begin working with local clubs (MLS youth clubs) and also with things like the reserve league, which can expose younger players to top players at a young age. Just look at all of the MLS players on the U20 national team, those guys are getting good experience in an ever improving league. The DP rule will hopefully bring in players that guys that young MLSers like danny szetela, dax mccarty, anthony wallace, Jozy Altidore, and others can learn from.
    beyond just the DP’s, creative scouting by coaches has been very positive this year in brining in talent (Toja and Richetti in dallas, Carlos Marinelli in KC, Luciano Emillio in DC, Danny Dichio in TOR among others) These guys are solid professionals from various leagues and nations.

    Sry i was bored at work and felt like typing.

  5. If soccer is on the TV, I will watch it.

    I grew up with the American norm of Baseball, Football and Basketball. My kids played soccer and I enjoy the game.

  6. I really hope that ESPN can transform soccer into more popularity. Soccer is a better sport than what I grew up with and a better sport for our kids.

  7. well it might … they play more MLS tahn any thing else

  8. what i dont get .. is why LA didnt buy a few othere good footballers who are nearing the end of there career … that way it be a good team to watch, and would win the league easy

  9. Verbal said

    Maybe so, but maybe ESPN just sees the big picture. You have a gazillion AYSO and high school soccer kids that are going to graduate and increasing internationalization of american culture — most of the world does not play hockey. It seems that every second baseball gets a tiny bit closer to death and soccer gets a little bit bigger just as a matter of demographics.

  10. Jonathan said

    First – Major League Soccer has a firm loyal fan base and doesn’t need to be saved. It does, however, need to grow.
    Second: ESPN has “manufactured hype” for other sports leagues in the U.S. including NFL,NBA,NHL and MLB. When Pele came to the NY Cosmos with the North American Soccer League there was no base of professional soccer in this country. It was this period that “planted the seed” for the growth of professional soccer in the United States. MLS is built on firm ground. Beckham is an outstanding player and has Worldwide notorarity. Many will come to watch Beckham but will stay because of the quality of soccer in the MLS. I lived in Europe for 11 years and certainly enjoyed watching the English Premiere League, La Liga and certainly still watch them since arrival back in the U.S. I bought on what I heard about Major League Soccer when I returned to the U.S. After I actually start to attend games – found MLS to be just as exciting. It’s also much better to be able to attend professional games and support a local team. High level quality players such as David Beckham will continue to raise the quality of the league. Major league soccer has a system in place to grow it’s own players and with the additional of more international stars – the quality will continue to grow. Most American’s haven’t had the opportunity to watch professional soccer – to these I recommend that you go to watch 3-5 MLS games and go as a supporter. Learn the rules of soccer. Play if you are able. Get involved with Youth Soccer. This will help you learn some of the finer points which will make more understandable and definately more exciting. Follow your team and follow the league. Understand the international game – both at the club level on the level of country against country.

    Be Patriotic – support our country’s team who play at the highest level of the World’s most popular team sport. Most American’s don’t really understand how important this game is around the World how important it is to support the U.S. National team.

  11. Felix said

    I believe once the product on the field or literally the pitch (as they say in England), and we no longer have NFL gridiron lines as a distraction, that it will do a lot more for the perception of the league than anything else ESPN can do for it. I also think ESPN could have gone even further to promote MLS and found its current promo still a bit weak.

  12. John Margaat said

    Jason, yes we agree that hype can only get one foot thru the door, and if the play doesn’t match the hype you risk the chance of losing the new fans within a short time.

    MLS brass are already aware that they need to step up the caliber of play.
    Perhaps this is why they are considering a second DP for each team. And perhaps this is why they are also considering of increasing the cap-per-team… to attract higher-caliber players.

  13. J D said

    I think increasing the cap is critical to the growth of the league, mostly because I think it is difficult to field a quality side with such a low cap. Adding a DP is great, but it’s the role players more than anything that bring up the quality of play. Of any sport, it must be said that 1-2 players has the least impact on a soccer team.

    ESPN is helping (although long-time soccer fans may consider the commentary inferior) and I think the league will be fine. As one poster said, MLS does not need to be saved…just improved.

  14. I agree with joefootball, L.A. should get more soccer players overseas. They could get more audience and might improve their performance in this sports. I really think soccer deserve to gain more popularity.

  15. megan fox said

    Sign: umsun Hello!!! rcuwwymhyw and 6833ssgfhphzye and 1501I love your blog. :) I just came across your blog.

  16. [...] on The Situationist, Jason Chung offers a very provocative thesis: “ESPN’s hype machine is aggressively pushing Major League Soccer in the face of [...]

  17. [...] el artículo “Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?” Jason Chang sostiene que ESPN está movilizando su maquinaria mediática para potenciar el fútbol [...]

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