NEW YORK (AP) - Without much fanfare, soccer will take another big step into the American mainstream this weekend when Manchester United’s game at Arsenal becomes the first English Premier League match to be televised live by a U.S. over-the-air network.
“To do this 10 years ago, had we put to the affiliates that we wanted to take the time to show a soccer game, we would have been either laughed at or it would have been a violent and an immediate rebellion,’” said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who is putting the match on his main network.
These days, EPL games are more common on television in the U.S. than in England. In the homeland of soccer, the 3 p.m. (10 a.m. EST) Saturday games are blacked out to protect attendance of matches in the lower leagues, which may sound somewhat familiar to NFL fans in cities like Jacksonville and Cincinnati.
In the United States, pretty much every game is available if a fan is willing to channel surf cable broadcasters Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus and ESPN2, or look at online services foxsoccer.tv and espn3.com. Many games also are broadcast on the Spanish-language cable networks of Fox and ESPN.
Fox is ramping up with this weekend’s broadcast: While Fox Soccer is available in 41 million homes, its over-the-air network is received in 114.7 million.
“I think Fox is taking a bold step,” said former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, who runs his own media consulting firm. “The commitment that Fox has made to soccer, interestingly enough, is based on the world game rather than the game that is played in the United States. I think research and audience-gathering information indicates there is considerable interest in worldwide professional soccer, particularly coming from England.”
Top European divisions, especially the Premier League, have better, faster players than Major League Soccer, stars with the highest salaries who attract the most attention. The gaps in talent and revenue, while closing, are still huge _ sort of like the difference between the NBA and basketball leagues in Italy and Turkey.
So before U.S. sports start each weekend, increasing numbers are turning their TV sets early to watch matches from England.
Live games and premieres of recorded EPL games on Fox Soccer have averaged 142,000 viewers this season, an 8 percent increase from 2010-11, according to Nielsen Media Research. ESPN2’s viewers are up 12 percent to 299,000.
That’s small compared to the numbers generated by the replays Fox experimented with earlier this season on its main network, when games on Sept. 18, Oct. 2 and Nov. 20 were each seen by about 1.6 million viewers. All three followed live telecasts earlier in the day on Fox Soccer.
Fox started the cable soccer network in 1996, when it was known as Fox Sports International, and has steadily intensified involvement in the sport, adding the premium channel Fox Soccer Plus two years ago.
The over-the-air Fox network televised the European Champions League final for the first time in 2010, drawing 1.6 million viewers for Inter Milan’s win over Bayern Munich, and the audience increased to 2.6 million last May for Barcelona’s victory over Manchester United.
Those matches are among the most-watched in the world, behind only big games at the World Cup and European Championship. Sunday’s 11 a.m. EST game at London’s Emirates Stadium is just a league match, one of 38 for each club during a season that stretches from August until May.
On Feb. 5, Super Bowl Sunday, Fox’s main network will televise what it calls “the game before the game,” Chelsea’s match against Manchester United at London’s Stamford Bridge starting at 11 a.m. EST.
“People have been saying since the beginning of time in the U.S. that soccer is the sport of tomorrow, yet tomorrow never comes,” Hill said. “We’re not saying that’s ever going to take over. It’s never doing to dominate, it’s never going to replace college football or any sports, but it’s going to grow over the next 10-20 years to an incredibly strong niche.”