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Resources Apr 21, 2015

Invasion 2015: Two English soccer matches feature on US network TV Saturday

For two decades Sports Illustrated has run a segment dubbed “This week’s sign of the Apocalypse,” designed to highlight various weird and wacky goings-on in the world of sports.

For the dwindling ranks of “old-fashioned Americans” bred to be fearful and dismissive of soccer, that concept got a little more serious over the weekend.

Their disbelieving eyes were exposed to not one, but two foreign professional soccer matches simultaneously broadcast on competing major television networks.

+READ: $720 million bet: Historic new MLS-U.S. Soccer TV deal promises real investment from ESPN, Fox, Univision

Many have grown accustomed to NBC’s extensive live coverage of the English Premier League, which usually includes a slot on the network’s mothership channel for the most compelling matchup of each weekend.

On Saturday that honor fell to the marquee match between EPL frontrunners Chelsea and perennial favorites Manchester United.

But that midday (on the East Coast) broadcast had stiff competition over on FOX, where the high-profile FA Cup semifinal between Arsenal and Reading kicked off on the network’s main channel just 10 minutes later.

As is so often the case, social media was a great place to measure the reactions of a decent cross-section of American television viewers.

And while many welcomed this unusual predominance of soccer on over-the-air TV, others lamented what they saw as the latest symptom of the United States’ sad decline as a world power.

The most startling complaint during the games came from the official Twitter account of Southern California local outlet CBS Los Angeles, however, who tweeted out, “Two of the major over-the-air broadcasters in the U.S. are currently showing soccer. What the hell happened to this country?”

As disapproval and mockery rained down on the @CBSLA in response, the tweet was quickly deleted and a vague apology posted “for an earlier tweet sent in error.” (It remains unclear how the guilty tweeter was dealt with internally. )

But as a brief bit of web searching will quickly show, there certainly was some dismay over the latest sign of soccer’s ascendancy here after decades of irrelevance and “niche sport” status.

There was also a corresponding degree of amusement on the part of soccer fans gleeful to see the sport’s haters so annoyed at the prime placement.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United drew a 0.8 overnight rating, a tie for the third-highest rating of the season for the EPL on NBC, while Reading vs. Arsenal FA drew a 0.5 overnight on Fox. That latter number is a 29 decrease from Fox’s two FA Cup matches last year: Arsenal/Tottenham in the third round and the Arsenal/Hull final, both of which drew a 0.7.

Saturday’s ratings aren’t barnburners, to be sure (and EPL’s morning-heavy time slots generally don’t face much U.S sports competition). But they show that there was a substantial audience for soccer despite two games competing directly for their eyeballs. And with NBC’s coverage continuing to set new EPL viewership records in the United States year after year, the trendlines are headed in an upward direction.

+READ: NBC acquires exclusive U.S. media rights to English Premier League

Even so, just one day later MLS viewers were subjected to the indignity of Sunday night’s featured New York City vs. Portland Timbers match being bumped from Fox Sports 1 to Fox Sports 2 thanks to lengthy weather delays during the NASCAR at Bristol auto race, preventing many fans from watching the game entirely due to FS2’s limited nationwide carriage. (And NASCAR’s enormous ratings compared to most soccer broadcasts make for sobering reading for soccer fans.)

SUM-TV-deal-presserBy now it’s quite clear that soccer, as a sport, needn’t worry about “making it” in the United States. But moments like this weekend should serve as both a celebration of the beautiful game’s growth here, and the work still to be done.

Especially when other Americans, even if just a few, still seem to see the sport as foreign and frightening as communism or alien invasion.

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