The vast majority of Americans have been unable to watch Lionel Messi and the rest of the top players and teams in Europe this season.
Until the start of the 2012-13 season I, as a loyal fan of Juventus, took advantage of the chance to watch them on weekends on Fox Soccer Channel. Indeed, in that sports netherworld that is February when the Super Bowl is over but baseball has yet to begin—or any Serie A play, for that matter—was a welcome way of tiding myself over until Spring Training started.
This season, however, I've only been able to watch my beloved bianconeri live twice—during their Champions League fixtures against Chelsea. It's the only way to find Italian soccer this year for all but those who have either DirecTV or DISH Network as their television provider.
This year, Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga signed exclusive TV rights deals with beIN Sport USA, a network launched by Al Jazeera Sport Media Network this past summer. The network was originally only available on DirecTV or DISH—a total of only eight million homes in the United States. Later, in August, Comcast began carrying the network, and earlier in the month, beIN expanded its distribution to include Time Warner and Bright House. But in many cases, the network is not shown on basic cable—even here in New York City one must subscribe to it as a premium channel.
Last season on Fox Soccer, Serie A averaged 54,000 viewers over 96 live game telecasts. Gol TV's statistics are not as good for La Liga—an average of only 29,000 viewers—but Nielsen only measures the Hispanic portion of the audience, so the actual numbers are likely higher. ESPN Deportes stood at 115,000—again, with only Hispanic audiences measured—and spiked to almost 750,000 people when they broadcast the two league Classicos. All of these numbers are likely to have dropped off the table by the time that Nielsen starts measuring beIN's ratings.
Despite the expanded distribution, beIN is still not a basic cable channel in most markets, and the ratings are expected to be poor. According to Marc Ganis of the consulting firm Sports Corp. Ltd., "The ratings are going to be so low that they will be almost unmeasurable." Ganis considers the move to take more money up front in exchange for reducing exposure "fool's gold."
The move is a short-term money grab, and one that is almost certain to backfire horribly. beIN's limited viewership is curtailing the market for European soccer in America at precisely the wrong time.
Normally at this time of year, America's winter sports are in full swing. Whereas during the summer months—the offseason in Europe—there is really only baseball to take up a sports fan's time, at this time of year three different options are usually available. There is the NFL, which is starting it's push toward the playoffs, and the NBA and NHL, which are just kicking off their seasons.
I say "usually" because this year is different. For the second time since the turn of the century, the National Hockey League is in the midst of a lengthy lockout. They have recently announced yet another round of cancellations, including their All-Star Game. In total, 422 regular season games have so far been cancelled.
This leaves a huge void in the American sports landscape—one that, under last year's TV contracts, European soccer would have been in prime position to exploit. However, under the current deals, exposure will be so low for any league other than the English Premier League—whose rights are still held by Fox Soccer (who averaged 185,000 viewers a season ago) and subleased to ESPN (who averaged 321,000)—that the European leagues will be unable to take full advantage of the absence of hockey in the American sporting landscape this year.
Now, it is unlikely that beIN's Qatari overseers are stupid. They wrapped up deals with other distributors very quickly (as seen against other comparable situations such as the drawn-out saga between Time Warner and the NFL Network that has only just been solved), and it may be only a matter of time before the network becomes part of the distributors' basic packages.
That would be especially true if beIN were able to beat out Fox Soccer to acquire the rights to the EPL when they are up for renegotiation after this season.
But at this moment in time, the vast majority of Europe's best leagues can only be seen in a small handful of homes, at a time when they could be making a major inroad into the American market. We can only hope that these leagues don't end up regretting their decisions to take the money and run.