Global Soccer Leagues Turn To Digital Strategies To Compete For Viewership And Fans In The United States

The race to capture American soccer fans’ viewership attention just gained another runner.

August 14 marked the beginning of Fox and the Deutsche Football League’s five-year United States television agreement. Under the deal, for the first time, all 306 of the Bundesliga’s matches will be aired in the United States across television, digital and mobile platforms.

The announcement of Fox’s deal with the DFL signals the growing competition between American networks to obtain soccer rights and appeal to the growing interest in the sport amongst U.S. viewers. Under the Fox deal, the Bundesliga will join the English Premier League and Major League Soccer as soccer leagues whose matches are aired on American television networks.

While financial terms of the DFL’s agreement with Fox weren’t available, soccer leagues have recently been heavily compensated for their American broadcasting rights. This summer, the English Premier League signed a six-year contract extension with NBC to air all of its matches across the network’s platforms. The extension is believed to be valued between $800 million and $1 billion. In January 2015, MLS signed an eight-year broadcasting deal with Fox, ESPN and Univision reportedly worth $720 million.

While soccer is the most watched sport globally, the question remains whether U.S. viewership numbers can sustain the presence of three soccer leagues on American networks. Leagues, networks and experts, however, do not foresee any issue in attracting American viewers to the new soccer offerings on their televisions.

“The 2014 FIFA World Cup proved that there is a large enough audience in the United States to sustain long-term viewership. U.S. audiences have become enamored with high quality soccer matches. U.S. fans will watch good quality soccer,” said University of Miami sport communication professor, Dr. Tywan Martin.

Like Martin, networks recognize that the quality of their brand of soccer is paramount to securing the highest number of American viewers. “Americans like high scoring games. The fact that the Bundesliga is the highest scoring game in Europe is a selling point in the United States,” said Fox International Channels’ chief marketing officer, Liz Dolan.

The DFL echoed Dolan’s sentiments on a strong soccer product being necessary to attract a large American viewership base. “I like MLS’ claim that their league is, ‘all about the fans’. If you have that attitude about football, then no one can deny watching the Bundesliga. There is no doubt that the atmosphere of fully packed stadiums featuring all types of members of society is fan and audience based. This particular stadium atmosphere gives the Bundesliga a very special profile compared to other brands of football,” said DFL CEO, Christian Seifert.

Other American communications experts, however, think that the Bundesliga may have a harder time capturing the attention of American fans than its rival leagues. “There are enough future fans in a vacuum, yes, to sustain viewership of three leagues. The problem with the Bundesliga or Serie A, is that neither of those leagues is as culturally translatable to the U.S. as the Premier League is. Since Americans share a common language with Great Britain, it’s been far easier for American fans to learn about Premier League teams and players,” said Dr. Galen Clavio, an associate professor of sports media at Indiana University.

To educate fans about the Bundesliga, Fox has built a robust digital strategy aimed at attracting younger and new soccer fans to the league.

“The digital strategy for us across the world is very important, because it is such an effective way to reach younger viewers. We will run promos on Fox Sports, but if we want to reach younger and newer viewers, we must use a digital strategy. Sports is so much about breaking news, scores and details. Digital can deliver that so much better than television,” Fox International Channels’ Dolan explained.

Fox is heavily focused on its digital strategy out of the gate with its Bundesliga deal. The first game broadcast under the deal on August 14 will be simulcast globally on Fox’s YouTube channel. “This has never been done before. We wanted to make sure that we started with a bang. The August 14 simulcast from Munich will reach 300 million homes around the world. We want to introduce our first game to as wide of an audience as possible,” Dolan said.

Overall, leagues are bullish when it comes to the potential viewership and fan growth that the United States presents. “The U.S. together with China is the biggest football markets in the world. We completed research in 2007 with MLS and what we saw, is that until the age of 14, football is the most popular sport. There’s huge potential, therefore, for football in the United States,” the DFL’s Seifert noted.

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