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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
A Critical Examination of ESPN and Major League Soccer

Over on The Situationist, Jason Chung offers a very provocative thesis: "ESPN's hype machine is aggressively pushing Major League Soccer in the face of American apathy in order to push their own agenda."

This piece, entitled "Manufactured Hype: Can ESPN’s Agenda-Setting Behaviour save Major League Soccer?," is partly a follow-up to his piece last month in which argued that ESPN is killing Hockey. Here is an excerpt from his new piece:
Most journalists and editors, particularly in the realm of sports (and specifically ESPN), tend to deny or ignore the role that they play in agenda-setting. As ESPN vice-president of studio productions Craig Lazarus claims “There is this notion that we drive a sport’s popularity . . . but I think we reflect it.” During a radio interview on Toronto’s FAN 590 in which I defended my previous article, sportscasters and producers Doug Farraway and Gerry Dobson also advanced that very same “consumer is sovereign” line of thinking when defending ESPN’s NHL coverage. They asserted that it is viewers and listeners that determine their news priorities. The claim is that consumers or fans have fixed preferences, and the media simply competes over viewers given those (exogenous) preferences. The viewer’s disposition controls while the situational influence of the media is irrelevant.

As logical as that simple model is, it is also wrong (or, at least, vastly exaggerated). In their 1999-2000 series of articles on the problem of “market manipulation” (see Westlaw and SSRN), Doug Kysar and Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson detailed how sellers — from gas stations to grocery stores — manipulate consumer perceptions and preferences routinely. McCombs and Shaw, as already noted, came to a very similar conclusion with respect to news coverage. Can it be that sports media and the selling of sports is somehow different and immune from manipulation? Quite the contrary. To an extent nearly impossible with hard news, sports journalism seems open to manipulation given its relatively trivial content (at least in comparison with hard news) and highly subjective nature in measuring the “newsworthiness” of stories. It is hard to believe that editorial control does not yield, even subconsciously, to corporate interests.
For the rest of the piece, click here. It is a great read.


What is ESPN supposed to talk about to fill the time?

Hockey is competing against NCAA and NFL football, then the NBA and NCAA basketball with significant overlap between those.

MLS is up against major league baseball, the WNBA and Arena Football.

I don't care about soccer but I'll take soccer coverage over poker and lumberjack games and bicycle tricks which seems to be the only other filler they have.

Blogger Mark -- 8/14/2007 10:08 PM  

Sorry for the length of this comment...

I think this is taking ESParanoiaN a little too far. I am all for bashing the WWL for its blatant commercialism and superficiality in sports, but there is a huge difference between its efforts to promote a sport like soccer and its deliberate efforts to de-legitimize others (hockey).

If ESPN is truly a world-wide leader, it has the absolute right to promote sports that do not have heavy exposure in order to broaden the horizons of American TV viewers. They have already had success in this field with extreme sports in the X-Games for several years, and are attempting to do so with Arena Football (for better or worse), college sports other than football, and Major League Soccer.

It's also important to note that, as the "Worldwide Leader", ESPN should probably be covering the worldwide sport of choice = soccer. ESPN has covered international soccer in the past, both men's and women's, by airing Champions League games, international friendlies, and World Cup games. Additionally, ESPN has had an entire website dedicated to soccer coverage for some time on the internet ( and has extensive coverage on its foreign language networks.

The amplified coverage for soccer really should not be mentioned in the same breath as the disparaging treatment the network gives hockey. From a legal perspective, there is a big difference between promoting an internal product and essentially assaulting the marketability of a competitor's product that, in my opinion, approaches the fringes of unfair competition regulations.

The article itself also makes some pretty serious claims that do not seem entirely accurate:

"Recent evidence seems to indicate that too much attention and hype can backfire when promoting an inferior product. Unlike other sports leagues, such as the NHL, MLS faces a unique challenge as superior soccer leagues are available on U.S. airwaves, such as Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League, and can be readily compared to MLS."

With the exception of specialty premium cable or satellite packages, this is not the case. Soccer coverage is predominantly limited to scarce MLS coverage on local Fox Sports Net channels, ESPN MLS games, and Mexican League games on Spanish-language channels such as Unavision and Telemundo. ESPN is entering an undersaturated market that does not incorporate a great deal of other international soccer at all, and it has added a great deal of exposure to the sport. The ongoing SuperLiga tournament between American and Mexican teams is not even being broadcast on any channel as far as I can find.

"MLS is mostly treated as a glorified golden parachute for aging European “name” talent (such as former Arsenal legend Sol Campbell). Unfortunately, in other words, it is perceived very much like the defunct North American Soccer League was."

Not true. In fact, many EPL teams are forming developmental agreements with MLS and USL teams. American talent is going abroad in droves, and MLS is gaining much more international respect because of it. Very few MLS players are "cast-offs" from European or Latin leagues. A side note: Sol Campbell, the noted example, plays for Portsmouth, a Premier League team.

"The lesson, then, is that while ESPN has the incentive and some ability to influence what sports fans watch and like, there are limits to what they can pull off. Even if ESPN’s agenda-setting behaviour is successful in the short term by attracting new viewers to the sport, keeping a loyal fan base will prove difficult."

Comments like this simply don't reflect several important points, the most important of which is that soccer is not a new phenomenon in this country or any other. American soccer support is growing fairly rapidly, and could be culturally supported on the same level as other "American" sports in the near future. But it is a gradual process. As the MLS continues to expand, and more home bred talent continues to emerge, American soccer will become more popular. But, like the USSL, television coverage is a necessity for commercial success, and expanded coverage by television outlets should not be seen as detrimental.

Blogger Ben -- 8/15/2007 2:01 AM  

Even ESPN pushing the MLS is not going to save the league from an ultimate demise. The MLS tries to be too mainstream without appealing to the average American or the hard core soccer fan. There are a few problems converging that hurt the MLS:

#1) There are too many sports options in the United States. In Europe soccer is the main event; bigger than NFL, NBA or MLB. Americans think that Packers-Bears or Yankees-Red Soxes rivalries are a big deal but they aren't even comparable to an average European soccer rivalry. At European soccer matches opposing fans sit in their own sections protected by police officers lining the aisles between fans. In fact wearing the wrong color shirt (that is right shirt, not even jersey) might lead to a fight. In some stadiums (Ajax in Amsterdam for example) fans are separated by permanent walls and enter the stadium at different entrances to try to contain the potential bad blood between opposing fans.

#2) Americans only have an interest when America is the best. Look at the Dream Team (MJ, Bird and company) versus the current United States basketball team. The L.A. Galaxy aren't even competitive in the MLS let alone abroad. At least the Cosmos of the defunct NASL dominated their league, the L.A. Galaxy are far from entering Cosmos territory in terms of success on the field.

#3) Americans (in general) do not appreciate the beauty of soccer. A 0-0 tie might be a great game but without scoring it is quantified as a waste in the United States. Look at how the home run saved baseball in recent years -- without that the average fan would have tuned out. The MLS actually toyed with changing the rules (taking away offsides to increase scoring) to make it more palatable in the United States.

In closing, even if ESPN is really hyping the MLS then why is it so far down on their menus online. Go to, roll-over "Soccer" and look at the drop-down menu. MLS is the last option behind such current content as the 2006 World Cup.

Just to put this in perspective. I played soccer my entire life and love the game. I live in a Chicago where there is a soccer specific stadium for an MLS team (all be it in a totally inconvenient location for people that live in the city proper) and I have been to 1 Chicago Fire game. That said, I will get up at 7:30 a.m. this weekend and go to a bar to catch the Manchester Derby to support my side Manchester City.

Blogger Chris -- 8/15/2007 11:55 AM  

I must concede that I have little to say about the horse/cart phenomenon at play here, although I wonder if it would change the debate seriously if we used a MTV or radio paradigm. That is, did the radio play it because we liked it or did they push it on us, and the concomitant exposure fuel a previously-low (or nonexistant) demand?

On a more personal note, I do love the term ESParaNoia and I don't think the actions of the network run towards the Magazine, whose news articles may be scheduled months in advance. Again, personally, a well-written article on hockey or any other sport can create in me a greater interest in the sport as a whole. Does it make me a fan? I don't know, but it does create in me a greater openness or empathy with the sport.

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