In a recent interview with h+ Magazine, Ray Kurzweil suggested that the problem with most science fiction is that storytellers too often operate in a vacuum. They only change one thing about the world we live in, then leave the rest unchanged. Creating a unique world that takes into account all possible factors is a huge dramatic challenge. This might explain why so many people remain fascinated with Star Wars, Star Trek and The Matrix, and why movie reviewers seem to be gushing over Daybreakers — or, as I like to call it, Another Goddamn Vampire Flick.
Every change creates ripple effects, which makes it all the more difficult to see the big picture until enough time has passed and we can look at the bigger picture. If John Bassett hadn’t contracted lung cancer, would he have been able to prevent Donald Trump from leading the USFL over a cliff? Maybe, but we couldn’t see that while it was happening.
That’s why some soccer fans in America are having such a negative reaction to the news that Fox Sports International is about to buy out Setanta Sports USA. They only see the immediate change in the world in front of them. If Setanta goes away, it would mean on the surface that there would be less Premier League matches to watch each weekend.
Nothing, however, operates in a vacuum, and most of these fans are ignoring the $4.3 billion elephant in the room.
The problem with Setanta Sports has always been cost as a barrier to entry. You have to be a truly dedicated football fan — or a paid blogger who’s creative with tax write-offs — to shell out an extra $15 a month to watch that much more football. This is why Setanta has only been able to attract about 65,000 subscribers in the USA, giving it a monthly income of $975,000.
By comparison, Fox Soccer Channel is in 32 million homes and pulls about $0.06 per subscriber from cable and satellite providers. That’s $1.92 million a month, almost double what Setanta takes in monthly, and because it’s part of a massive media conglomerate, FSC is always going to have the upper hand.
They don’t get any more massive, however, than ESPN, which pulls a whopping $3.65 per subscriber from cable and satellite providers. Multiply that by 98 million homes, and you’re talking $357.7 million a month.
So it stands to reason that if company A 1.) brings in 366 times more cash than company B, and 2.) wants something you have, it might be willing and able to pay just a little bit more cash for it.
That something, of course, is the TV rights to the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League in the USA. Fox has these things for the next three years. ESPN, meanwhile, has the FIFA World Cup, and it doesn’t want all those world-class players to fade from memory after the World Cup is over.
Those world-class players don’t play here. The world’s best baseball, basketball and hockey players play in the USA, sure, but the world’s best footballers don’t play in MLS. Hell, most U.S. national team members play in Europe these days. Even Landon Donovan is in Merseyside right now, and Stuart Holden seems headed for the UK himself. Given the current state of MLS labor negotiations, we don’t even know for sure if our domestic league season will start on time.
Plus, the Premier League fits ESPN’s programming schedule better than anything American club soccer has to offer, and the quality of play is generally higher. The WWL can pull much better ratings with baseball and basketball in prime time while filling its weekend morning and weekday afternoon schedules with soccer. EURO 2008 was cheap mid-day programming for ESPN, but the Nielsen ratings proved there was an appetite for top-shelf soccer in this country.
So why didn’t ESPN just acquire the TV rights to the Premier League and Champions League itself, rather than ceding them to Fox? For the same reason ESPN let Setanta UK fail before swooping in themselves — to save money. Let Fox shell out the big bucks to get those TV rights, or to try and mesh what’s left of Setanta’s corporate culture with its own. Sub-licensing Premier League matches is much cheaper for ESPN, who only has to pay for a studio team in Bristol and make way for the league’s own satellite feed.
As for the Champions League, Fox’s buyout of Setanta allows them to keep this year’s knockout stage exclusively on its own networks. UEFA set up the schedule for the knockout stage so that only two matches would be happening simultaneously on any given day. That means one match on FSC and one on Fox Sports Net. What happens next season remains uncertain, but I think Fox wants to keep this competition to itself.
And what about the FA Cup or the other leagues in Scotland, France and Russia? Fox could easily sub-license those to ESPN as well, and the WWL could shuttle them over to ESPN360, which already has La Liga, Serie A and the Football League, among other things.
So do not fret over the Setanta buyout, fellow soccer fans. You won’t be getting fewer games as a result of this deal. You’ll just watch them on different channels.
Now, if you’re a rugby union fan, you’ll probably have to shift your cash to Rugby Zone or some other online feed — unless those matches wind up on ESPN360, too, which is entirely possible. That’s where the Australian Football League ended up last year. If you’re Irish and want to watch the GAA… well, honestly, I don’t know what to tell you at this point. This deal was always about those filthy garrison games. You might be out of luck.
The rest of us, though, will be saving $180 a year for the same amount of football, which is awesome. I’d use my savings to get season tickets for my local club, if only Sunil Gulati would stop trying to stamp it out of existence. He’s looking more like Agent Smith to me every day.