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