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Confederations Cup TV failure is just another lost opportunity for U.S. soccer.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, August 31, 1999) -- The feeling is practically unanimous within American soccer circles: a great chance was lost to promote the sport with the failure to show the recent Confederations Cup on United States television except to a few scattered enclaves.

  • "A missed opportunity," said an ESPN official, who declined to be identified.
  • "We're very disappointed that this didn't get extensive exposure," said Dick Pinkham, IMG-TWI senior vice president, soccer.
  • "We have to get to the stage where we get good enough ratings so our sponsors can exercise leverage," said United States Soccer Federation secretary-general Hank Steinbrecher.
  • "We did the best we could," said TV rights winner Innovative Sports Marketing partner Doug Jacobs.

No comment was available from world soccer governing body FIFA's marketing agency, ISL.

The telecasts -- involving the greatest sustained showing ever by a U.S. team in finishing third -- wound up being shown to a network of about 500 bars (mainly catering to Hispanics) across the United States, just three cable outlets (two in southern California, one in northern Virginia) via pay-per-view, in addition to Echo Star Communicationsí Dish Network and National Programming Service. Total possible viewing audience: less than 5 million.

Total viewing audience: not available.

The absence of the contests even on pay-TV to most of the country was particularly aggravating. Innovative Sports Marketing of Hoboken, N.J., got the contract, outbidding Telemundo, with others including ESPN and Univision taking a pass. No figure has been announced, but U.S. Soccer officials have been quoted as saying it would have cost $750,000 to get the rights -- and probably add another $250,000 for production costs.

Jacobs said his firm didn't get the rights from ISL until four weeks before the tournament. "That wasn't enough time for cable networks to get the slots cleared and promote it," he said. "We didn't speak with ISL until May."

He was quoted by Soccer America: "It was really a question of lead time, and FIFA not really understanding the market here."

Why so late?

We tried without success to get comment from ISL, being bounced from its U.S. offices in Connecticut overseas to Switzerland, then to England, where messages were left for two straight days with executive David Schiller and not returned.

Steinbrecher said he would not have approved a $1 million proposal if it came across his desk. Should U.S. Soccer have been involved? Would a tournament involving the United States -- as well as Brazil, Mexico and Germany -- be a chance to show that soccer can draw good ratings?

What about Major League Soccer, where MetroStars owner Stuart Subotnick complained there wasn't enough publicity about the Confederations Cup and MLS players' involvement? Improved marketing is supposed to be a prime reason for the naming of new MLS commissioner Don Garber. Would helping sponsor such a tournament come under the "marketing" label?

What about ESPN or ESPN2, looking for an indirect way of boosting dismal MLS ratings?

Couldn't someone have gotten the three entities -- U.S. Soccer, MLS, and ESPN -- together for a joint sponsorship package? And shouldn't ISL be talking to Innovative Sports Marketing before May, so at least there would be a better chance to get the U.S. games on pay-TV? FIFA wants soccer to flourish in the United States. Not showing U.S. national team games to a substantial audience didn't help the cause.

It isn't enough for U.S. Soccer and marketing representative IMG to say this is a FIFA event. We have representation in FIFA. We have in the last five years operated the two most commercially successful World Cups in history. That should give us some juice. What do we say about the Gold Cup -- that it's a CONCACAF event and we have no say?

The cable systems aren't without blame, either. Many have vacant channels. Promotion? A notice in the sports TV schedule section of the newspaper. Nothing exhaustive. Soccer people don't need to be hit on the head to find the sport on television.

The Confederations Cup could have been an acid test about whether soccer is a viable TV commodity in the United States. A lot of people don't think it is -- other than for World Cups -- with the average rating for U.S. men's games in recent years 1.7, according to U.S. Soccer.

Maybe there just aren't that many soccer fans here. E-mails and phone calls and letters to U.S. Soccer and the networks won't do much good. People have to watch games when they are available, be measured by Neilsen, build up a track record. A golden opportunity was lost in late July and early August that could have helped do just that.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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