ESPN easily cast aside a soccer challenge from Cox in 2000, but now they could face a more formidable challenge from the biggest sport brand on the planet, and the rival of the second biggest. Wednesday the Major Soccer League announced that the New York Yankees, ranked as the most valuable sports brand by Forbes ahead of Manchester City’s rival Manchester United, is teaming up with City to bring a second professional soccer team to New York City less than three months before Fox Sports 1 launches.
The team will start play in 2015, the year Major League Soccer needs to lure a new contract out of either NBC Sports, ESPN, the new Fox Sports 1, or settle for a second tier contract.
Manchester City typically plays second fiddle to Manchester United, much as the Nets to the Knicks, Mets to the Yankees, Islanders to the Rangers and Jets to the Giants. However, they have defeated Manchester United in a couple of big games in the last couple of years to move back up the soccer world.
The move seems quite a gamble, as Yahoo Sports reported last week that average viewership for regular season games on NBC Sports was only 93,000, and it was doubtful NBC Sports or Fox would pick up the league’s TV rights in 2015. The 93,000 figure is fewer than one-quarter of the average viewership for an NHL regular season game – and much farther behind the NBA, MLB and the NFL. In fact, there are more fans in the stands for many SEC and Big Ten football games than watch a professional soccer match on TV.
The announcement by the Major Soccer League was covered by UPI and others Wednesday, and the timing of the new club starting play the season after the NBC Sports contract with the league ends was notable.
The existing Red Bulls will now have a rival in the New York City Football Club, which the league hopes will create the same buzz in the other city rivalries.
While the Islanders will be joining the Nets in Brooklyn, the new soccer club is initially looking at a potential new stadium in Queens.
The number of “1-nil” and other low scoring games have been an obstacle to American acceptance of soccer in the past. In major US sports, attendance has always tracked scoring – when games are high scoring sports attendance goes up and when low scoring it goes down. Soccer had a brief run when the New York Cosmos acquired Pele from Brazil in 1975, but the league folded less than a decade later.
After President Clinton attended the Women’s World Cup final when the women’s USA team defeated China for, the interest in women’s soccer temporarily skyrocketed, leading Cox Communications and its parent company to invest $10 million to form the WUSA and have a flagship sports league they hoped would challenge ESPN’s dominance. Attendance was very strong in 2000, but ESPN did not run highlights of games, likely a factor in the WUSA folding in 2003.
The short-lived success of the Cosmos and the WUSA did dramatically increase participation of American youth in soccer, leaving open the question as to whether those youth players would ever turn into adult viewers of 1-nil games.
While the Cosmos and WUSA gambles did not work, it is almost certain that the Yankees and Manchester City have modern data suggesting a two-team New York City can boost soccer to a viable long-term level.
Fox Sports 1 reportedly paid $3 billion for the YES network in order to have Yankees broadcasting rights. Yahoo Sports did note Fox Sports 1 will focus on Ultimate Fighting, NASCAR and college sports initially.