This may sound weird if you read this in a few years, but there was a time when soccer was an absolute non-factor to US media outlets. Now, we live in a time where ESPN, NBC, Fox, and any other sports media company with a digital outlet are battling for the streaming rights to every league in the world.
Most sports fans couldn’t even name the United States’ top soccer league prior to the 1994 World Cup. Major League Soccer wasn’t a major draw when it launched in 1996.
Jesus Christ! Look at those dumbass uniforms.
I went to a game between the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars during the league’s inaugural season. There were less than 10,000 people in the stands at the old Tampa Stadium, which held 70,000. More of those people were talking about the Debbie Gibson concert after the game than were talking about what was happening on the field.
Things are very different in 2018. The MLS is a lot bigger. Not only do several US cities have soccer specific stadiums for their MLS franchise, but tons of folks born and raised in the USA are diehard fans of clubs in the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. They wear their scarfs with pride. They pack bars on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch their side. Soccer fandom in the US is as healthy as it has ever been and soccer programming on television is valuable commodity.
As I watch and read and write about the prices the likes of ESPN+ and BR Live are paying to carry leagues from Europe and Latin America, I often wonder how far America’s love of international soccer extends. I casually like soccer, and even I can recognize that there are about half a dozen leagues where the level of play is better than that in MLS. I might give those leagues a look on TV, but I would probably go dial surfing if that play-by-play was on the radio.
Is that the case with die hard soccer fans? What do die hard soccer fans even want from sports radio?
If you love international soccer, you can get your play-by-play fix on SiriusXM, but that hardly tells us anything about what the appeal of a package of international games would be to local stations. SiriusXM’s strategy is to have something for everyone. The company is only concerned that people subscribe to their service, not so much that every channel it offers has a certain number of listeners.
I asked the program directors of three different stations that serve as the flagship for MLS teams a few questions to get their thoughts on the state of soccer on the radio and the sport’s broadcasting future.
Orlando City SC is one of the youngest teams in MLS, but they have a large, dedicated fanbase. City games air on FM 96.9 The Game. Program director Jack Bradshaw says that while not all of his listeners are soccer fans, the ones that are react mostly positively to morning man Mike Bianchi’s coverage of the team. Bradshaw says his morning show devotes a portion of every Thursday show to discussing Orlando City.
City has gained a large fan base quickly, and I wondered if that might have something to do with the Orlando Magic’s struggles. The Magic hasn’t had a winning season in the NBA since City joined MLS.
“I don’t believe so” Bradshaw told me in an email. “I do not think the fan support of one team comes at the expense of another. Conversely, the excitement of the success of one franchise can fuel more excitement for another. That’s just my opinion.”
On the other end of the MLS age spectrum is Sporting Kansas City. It was one of the original MLS clubs, of course, at the time the team was called the Kansas City Wizards. Kevin Kietzman serves as the sports director of the team’s flagship station Sports Radio 810 WHB.
He says the team’s fans are “as rabid as anything you can imagine, but they are not huge in numbers.” He also added that those fans’ loyalty can go a little overboard sometimes. “They generally think they know more about their team and sport than anyone on the air and they may be right except for our morning co-host. It’s funny, when you criticize the sport they just lose their minds. We bash these stupid new tackling rules in the NFL and nobody sneezes. You tell a soccer fan that a 0-0 draw is the worst thing imaginable their heads explode.”
I can attest to seeing a similar reaction from hockey fans in my time on the radio here in North Carolina. This is only a theory, but I wonder if it has something to do with feeling like you need to waive the flag for a sport in a geographic area where it doesn’t have overwhelming support.
If there is a market in the US that could be described as a soccer town, it might be Seattle. Sounders FC has a large, passionate fanbase. It has seemingly been like that since the team launched in 2009. I asked program director Rich Moore of 950 KJR how that happened.
“This isn’t a sport that gets lost in a big city, more like a niche that has a big stage. I would also say that how the team was launched and marketed helped put it on the map at a high level right out of the gate. And at the time the way the team structured itself with a partnership with the Seahawks they had resources more than other start up teams.”
KJR took over as Sounders FC’s flagship this season. Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer makes a weekly appearance with Softy and Dick Fain in the afternoons. Rich says when it comes to covering soccer, he wants his hosts to “have a lot of fun on the air with less x’s and o’s.”
Even in America’s most die hard soccer city, Moore says he has trouble seeing top flight international soccer playing on the radio the way it does on TV. “Without a local connection I don’t think there is a big enough audience.”
It is a sentiment that was echoed by Jack Bradshaw in Orlando. “I think the local connection for City fans to the team helps drive the success of the radio product. That may change, but as a programmer I am not looking for other soccer leagues to broadcast on radio, at this time.”
Kietzman looked at the possibility of broadcasting international soccer as a chance to service Sporting KC’s fans. “We would consider airing some international matches if it fit our schedule. We ran World Cup matches on our sister property, ESPN 1510. Didn’t see a bump or anything, it doesn’t really move the ratings needle. But we like to air live events over there as a service to die hards.”
So here’s what I took away from these conversations. Soccer is having a moment in the United States but that moment doesn’t resonate across the sports media spectrum. America may be coming around to watching international soccer on TV, but when it comes to the domestic product, it may be more about the experience.
“Sporting KC is really good, a class organization and very professional. But for most sports fans, it’s not appointment radio or tv,” says Kietzman. “Going the stadium to see the game is the real draw as is interaction with the club through youth soccer.”