The programming folks at Fox Sports have never been afraid of thinking out of the box to get more viewers to their broadcasts. This coming weekend, that philosophy will be applied to Major League Soccer.
As you may have heard since the news was first announced a few weeks ago, Fox has moved two games on Sunday to its over-the-air broadcast channel: Sporting Kansas City vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (2 p.m. Eastern) and Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls (5 p.m. Eastern).
The trick, though, is that you won't actually see both games on the television feed. You'll only see whichever one is going on during the time slot when your local Fox affiliate isn't broadcasting a NFL game.
The other game will be available to you online via Fox's streaming platforms, Fox Sports Go (free with TV provider authentication) and Fox Soccer 2 Go (paid subscription). Both games will also be televised nationwide in Spanish: Kansas City-L.A. on ESPN Deportes and Toronto-New York on Fox Deportes.
It's a gamble by Fox and MLS to try to get more American sports fans to watch a bit of MLS. And it's relatively low risk, since some people will stick around and others will just go watch whatever NFL game they're getting on CBS.
If it works, it will be good for all parties involved. If it doesn't, well, Fox has already signaled its overall goals by putting this year's MLS Cup final on the broadcast channel in prime time.
To help viewers understand what's coming Sunday, and to get a bit more insight on soccer matters at Fox, I talked with Bill Wanger, the network's executive vice president for programming, research and content strategy.
Explain the logistics of how Sunday's broadcasts will work.
The first game, Sporting Kansas City vs. L.A. Galaxy - 31 percent of the country is going to get that game on their Fox station. The remainder of the country will be able to watch it on Fox Sports Go. That game will lead into two NFL games at 4:00 p.m., and the markets will go to their respective NFL game.
Then we have Toronto FC vs. New York Red Bulls, and 68 percent of the country will see that game on their Fox station after football coverage is done at 5:00. The remaining people will be able to watch it on Fox Sports Go. So if you're a MLS fan, you can watch both games either on your local station and/or Fox Sports Go.
I think this is going to be a great event for MLS - it's the first time we've ever done this, and the first time in MLS' history where there's regionalized coverage surrounding NFL games. And I think it's going to get a lot of attention, and it's great for the fans.
You're going to get nice lead-ins in markets like, for example, New York City - we have a New York Giants football game that's going to lead into the New York Red Bulls.* So it's a way for us to get a lot of exposure to MLS and it should be one of the top regular season games in a long time for MLS in terms of audience figures.
[* - While it's somewhat coincidental that Fox has the Giants and Los Angeles Rams on its network this weekend, it's not coincidental that the Giants are the lead-in to the Red Bulls and the Galaxy are the lead-in to the Rams.]
For the game that a fan won't get on his or her television channel, will the Fox Sports Go feed require TV provider authentication or will it be open? Fox occasionally takes the authentication wall down, such as for online-only broadcasts of Big East college sports events.
Yeah, that's few and far between. It will require authentication. The only thing that really goes on our [television] air unauthenticated is the Super Bowl.
One of the questions that I get asked by readers all the time, and about every television network that broadcasts soccer, is why there isn't promotion of soccer broadcasts on a given channel at the moment when that individual reader just so happens to be watching that channel. So I might as well ask if the MLS games will be promoted well during Fox's NFL coverage.
Yes. Absolutely. You'll get messaging that says, "Coming up next, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls." And we will also, inside the pregame show at 12 p.m. Eastern, be informing viewers that some of them will be able to watch, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Kansas City and L.A., and it will be available for the rest on Fox Sports Go.
What went in to the decision to do this, and why did Fox feel it was a risk worth taking?
Well, I think the bottom line is that we're big believers in soccer in the United States. MLS is a new partner for us*, and obviously it's the top soccer league in the United States, and we want to promote it and grow it. That's really the impetus for it. It's a really great way, along with the MLS Cup [final] being on broadcast, to grow the sport and expose it to as many people as possible.
[* - Those of you with long enough memories know this isn't technically true, as Fox Sports World televised MLS games for many years before the league switched to NBC. But having MLS games on the over-the-air channel is new, and that's what Wanger meant.]
What is the power of the broadcast network at this point? So many big sporting events these days are on pay TV channels. Obviously, the really big ones like the Super Bowl and NBA Finals aren't. But the college football playoffs are, the college basketball Final Four is, and the baseball playoffs are through the League Championship Series.
It just gets you additional reach that you might not be able to get with a cable network. Traditionally, if you put the same event on cable versus broadcast, you're going to get an approximately 20 percent premium, or bump, being on broadcast - just being exposed to an over-the-air broadcast television station.
That's for a lot of reasons. Number one is it's more widely distributed. Number two is for a lot of people it's the first networks they check out when they're going through their channel guides. There's bigger promotional reach leading up to it. All those reasons combine and you still get a premium audience on broadcast.
And that matters to Fox, still, in this day and age? One of the main reasons why big sports events have moved to pay channels is that it drives viewers to buy cable or satellite subscriptions, which gets broadcasters revenue from subscriber fees.
We have a little different view than maybe some of our competitors. We're big believers not only in soccer, but we're big believers in broadcast television. We have more championship events on broadcast television than our competitors.* We have a special relationship with our affiliates, and believe that the biggest and the best events should be available to the widest possible audience. So we're going to continue to put big events on the Fox broadcast channel.
That's not to say that we aren't going to put big events on Fox Sports 1, because we will, and do. But part of our strategy in growing sports and enhancing our partnerships with leagues is putting things on the Fox broadcast channel.
[* - He said this, but I don't have the stats to prove it. So if you're out there reading this and you work for NBC or CBS or ESPN/ABC, please know that while I'm sure I'll get an earful from you, I didn't make the claim.]
Since you mentioned the "special relationship" you have with your affiliates, I have to raise the point that not all of your affiliates choose to air all of the sports broadcasts you give them.
I've gotten complaints from a number of readers about this over the years when soccer broadcasts aren't on their Fox affiliates. And I have to highlight the Fox affiliate in Miami, WSVN, which seems to skip showing soccer on a regular basis.
When this happens, what's the conversation like for you at Fox headquarters?
Look, in today's world, sometimes we will get preemptions on some of our stations. And there will be a few this Sunday with soccer. We have a couple sister stations in particular markets that are going to be airing the soccer game instead of the Fox affiliate in markets where we own two stations. That's really for reasons of local priorities [including] local NFL programming that they're running.
Once in a while there are preemptions, and it can be frustrating for viewers. But we always try to find alternate clearances one way or the other for our sporting events. This Sunday is no different, and it's just part of the world we live in. Our stations have priorities in addition to Fox [national content], and they have local priorities.
What should viewers do to make their voices heard and show that demand for soccer exists?
Viewers should send a note to the station for sure. That would be the first place. This Sunday, in instances where the soccer game will be on a sister station, we will be messaging that over various platforms [including] social [and] inside of the station's newscasts. We'll run a crawl/ticker at the time of the MLS game directing traffic, so to speak. Viewers will know, MLS fans will know, where to find the game.
While you're here, we've talked a bit here about Fox's decision to televise the MLS Cup final in prime time on the broadcast network on Saturday, December 10. What does that decision mean for the network?
We think the MLS championship deserves a prime broadcast slot. We worked with MLS on the date and the time, and it's a good window. College football is done, and we will not have to face NFL competition. So in that regard, we think it's a good scheduling move. Putting it in prime time on broadcast will expose it to the widest possible audience. We're looking forward to this and really promoting the game and the league.
There is a risk of bad weather if the game ends up in a cold-weather market. How much of a risk do you think that is?
Yeah, there is a risk, but I would say that the NFL plays prime time playoff games in January in cities like Green Bay and New York. So yes, there is always a risk of weather, but our feeling is it's a risk worth taking. MLS has talked to their clubs and their board [of governors], and they feel confident that the benefits outweigh any small risk that there is.
Is it as true in soccer as it is in other sports that the television viewer at home enjoys watching other people play outdoor sports in bad weather?
Ha. Yes. Look, we want a clean game, but bad weather isn't the worst thing from a television perspective. It's certainly not something we wish for, but it doesn't hurt from a TV ratings perspective, let's just say.
You've put a lot of soccer on the broadcast channel in recent times: MLS, Germany's Bundesliga, England's FA Cup final, the UEFA Champions League final, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Women's World Cup.
Obviously, Fox having the FIFA contract through 2026 gives the network more opportunities in the future to give marquee soccer games soccer that kind of exposure. Will we see some of the U.S. national team home games that you have the rights to - perhaps including World Cup qualifiers - on the broadcast network?
Yeah, I think so. It has to be the right date, and obviously the right night [of the week] - our prime time folks have their own priorities. But yeah, you absolutely could see a key men's or women's qualifier-type game on the Fox broadcast channel, sure.
Could that include the U.S. men's team's home World Cup qualifier against Mexico on November 11?
It will be on Fox Sports 1. We're working through the particulars. It hasn't been totally finalized yet, but it's going to be on FS1.
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