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Friday, June 09, 2006

Breaking through

(AP Photo/Mike Derer)
Fans in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark
with a large population of people from soccer-loving
nations of Portugal and Brazil, are snapping up their
team's jerseys.

Soccer Fan Makes Big Save for ESPN

Published: June 9, 2006

John Skipper is a soccer fan, a prized asset in a top executive at the ESPN empire, which starts its 64-game coverage of the World Cup today. He found his passion — which extends to calling the United States team "we" — first by coaching his two sons' teams but then through time spent in England in the mid-1990's when he was acquiring the Web site for ESPN.

"The English guys there all had their teams," he said during an interview over pastries and coffee yesterday. "I had to pick a team. So I ended up picking Tottenham Hotspur." Why? "I was a literature major," he said. "It's the Hotspurs. It's 'Henry IV.' "

His son, Nick, 20, has adopted Chelsea as his English Premier League club; Clay, 16, has opted for Arsenal. Together, the Skippers watch their teams on the Fox Soccer Channel.

If not for his soccer education in England, Skipper said he might not have been in Zurich twice last year, just days into his becoming ESPN's executive vice president for content, playing catch-up to NBC in the bidding for the English-language rights to carry the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. At the time, ESPN was at risk of letting future World Cups fall through its corporate cracks.

"If you looked at internal documents to see what our priorities and must-haves were, it wouldn't have been there," he said.

Skipper said that ESPN would have preferred the simple, risk-free, low-cost arrangement that provided his company with this year's World Cup: Soccer United Marketing, an affiliate of Major League Soccer, acquired the TV rights from FIFA, soccer's governing body, then purchased time on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.

Eventually, ESPN agreed to pay $100 million, and Univision successfully bid $325 million to retain the Spanish-language rights. The combined $333 million offer by NBC Universal and Telemundo — initially accepted by FIFA, then put into suspended animation to field more offers — was geared largely to benefit Telemundo; because of soccer's popularity in Spanish-speaking communities, Univision's ratings have dwarfed ABC's and ESPN's.

Skipper's focus for now is the 2006 event. Unlike predicted soccer breakthroughs in the United States in the wake of previous World Cups, he insisted that this one might be real. He sees the growing Hispanic population as one strong factor, and an improved United States team as another.

"It's a galvanizing moment every four years," said Skipper, 50, in a drawl nurtured in Lexington, N.C., where his father, a mailman, assured him that he was the only kid in town with a subscription to The Village Voice.

"It's a big, huge event," he continued. "It has broken through a little each time. But I think there is a degree of difference in the amount of attention being paid to this World Cup."

Soccer has been growing since 1994 steadily. MLS, Fox Soccer Channel, soccer gear, didn't exist when the US's first professional team hit the pitch in 1994. The 1999 woman's team also helped grow the sport. Brandi Chastain deserves a great deal of credit for enhancing the image of soccer after the 1998 debacle. Not because she ran around in a sports bra, btw, but because she did what male athletes always do, celebrate exhuberantly, and at the same time showed feminine women could be team athletes. Considering the number of women and girls in soccer, this was no small deal.

People have to place this in historical perspective.

If you ranked sports by attention and popularity, it has changed greatly since WWII.

College Basketball
College Football
Professional Football

Hockey and pro basketball were barely on the radar back then. Boxing matches would stop the country cold. Boxing mattered a great deal, was very popular in the media.Pro football was a minor sport back then

College Football
Pro Football
College Basketball

In the early 1950's, college basketball had suffered scandals which involved betting. College football still was more popular than the NFL. Hockey and basketball were still minor sports


Pro Basketball
College Football

It was the Superbowl and Monday Night football which made the NFL the number two sport in the US. But boxing still had Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Howard Cosell as well as major network time.

College Basketball
College Football

The current level of major sport support is less than 20 years old. Sports can ride to popularity on a single team, even a single player. Pro basketball did so with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Football rode to fame on the 1969 Super Bowl and Joe Namath.

College Basketball
College Football

Mike Tyson killed boxing. His great talent wound up being squandered and there was no one behind him worthy of national attention. Boxing, now quarantined on PPV cable and local boxing a relic, lost their audience as Tyson lost control.

Baseball went through a rough patch as football exploded and Hockey expanded across the country.

College basketball also benefited from the NCAA's tournament being broadcast live and wall to wall in March.

College Basketball
College Football

NASCAR's a large, popular, regional sport which has to grow to become a national sport. Only problem, it is regionally tied to the South in a way that hockey managed to elude it's ties to the North and East. Baseball managed to also have a few good years as well.

Soccer is probably the most played sport in the US, eclipsing baseball and football, because of the perception of injury with those sports and their cross gender appeal. Boxing is now a niche sport.

When they say soccer isn't growing, they forget that sport interest in the US is far more flexible than people think.Baseball was the dominant sport in this country, unchallenged until 1970. Pro football leaped over college football, because the ACC and SEC refused to recruit black players until Alabama got waxed by OJ Simpson and USC.

Football dominated sport in the early 90's and baseball developed labor problems and lost fans. Basketball and football became highly appealing to many teenagers looking for athletic success, where it could be found quickly, while baseball required years of work to become a professional.

Soccer's growth comes not only from immigrants, but the middle class. Jon Stewart does a PSA for Fox Soccer Channel, and was a soccer player at William and Mary. It's fashionable to wear soccer gear as well, most major sporting good stores sell it. Soccer is the sport of the suburbs and the immigrants, which means it eludes oldline sports fanatics like Keith Olbermann, but is growing in popularity with people under 40.

Interest in soccer has grown exponentially since the 1970's in the US, but is only starting to gain the commerical support that it has around the world. American audiences will treat this like they Olympics, they will root for the US and try to figure out the game.

But this idea that soccer hasn't gained a substantial audience is wrong. Sports interest is not fixed and can be altered. Personally, it will require not only a strong showing in this and the 2010 World Cup, but some top European stars to end their careers in the US while up and coming US players go to Europe to become a regular interest of Americans

posted by Steve @ 12:28:00 AM

12:28:00 AM

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