Within the caravan of European club soccer teams that visited American shores for preseason friendlies this summer, there were four French teams who don’t normally come this way.
French clubs overall don’t usually come to America, except for star-studded Paris Saint-Germain. And they aren’t heard from much here during the rest of the year, since their games are broadcast by beIN Sports.
Many American fans of European soccer aren’t familiar with Olympique Marseille, which won the Champions League in 1993 and was France’s biggest team for decades until PSG got rich.
They probably know Bordeaux more for its wine than its soccer team, which produced Zinedine Zidane.
Didier Quillot, CEO of France’s Ligue de Football Professionel, told The Inquirer that America is one of “the two main priorities for developing Ligue 1 outside of France,” along with China.
“There is clearly a strong interest for football in the USA, and we are not well-placed,” said Quillot, who was just as blunt about the league’s biggest problem: its television deal.
“We are not satisfied by the broadcast coverage in the U.S.,” he said. “Ligue 1 cannot be powerful [if] Ligue 1 is not distributed by Fox or ESPN."
Quillot knows that statement will raise eyebrows in soccer circles, because beIN isn’t just a broadcaster. The Qatar-based global behemoth is the exclusive global distributor of Ligue 1 rights until 2024. beIN pays $80 million a year for the privilege, splitting revenue above that with the league, and has a package of domestic rights. Its patrons also own PSG, a big reason for their big spending.
But from 2020 through 2024, Ligue 1 will earn over $1.3 billion per season for domestic media rights from beIN and other networks. In that context, $80 million isn’t much. And beIN Sports’ limited distribution in the U.S. — including a standoff with Comcast that shows no sign of ending — means even less bang for the buck.
“We don’t want to do something against beIN, we want to do something with beIN, in order to increase the value of the rights,” Quillot said. “We are [having] ongoing discussions in order to recover the numbers which are not big enough in the U.S.”
Those discussions haven’t produced results yet, and Quillot isn’t limiting himself to just Fox or ESPN. But he’s smart enough to know what the big players are here, and he wants their attention.
“What is good for Ligue 1 is good for beIN, and vice versa,” he said. “I mentioned those two because I know those two, but there are others.”
A bigger broadcast deal would be the best way to get American soccer fans’ attention, but it’s not the only way. Clubs could do more legwork themselves with social media, marketing, and merchandise sales here. The four teams that came to Audi Field didn’t bring a single jersey, scarf, or other souvenir to sell at the stadium store.
Fans noticed, and weren’t happy. Visiting French media and behind-the-scenes team staff also noticed, and knew an opportunity was missed.
After all, just a few weeks earlier, Americans at the Women’s World Cup bought seemingly every souvenir in the country. Renowned French sports newspaper L’Équipe described U.S. fans as being “possessed by a consumerist fever that Ligue 1 teams can only dream about.”
There’s another major move that French soccer can make, and it’s one no Ligue 1 club has made in 16 years. According to Transfermarkt.com’s gloal database, the last move of an American player from MLS to Ligue 1 happened in 2003. (Goalkeeper Joe Cannon went from the San Jose Earthquakes to Lens.)
Plenty of Americans have played in France since then, from Carlos Bocanegra to Union captain Alejandro Bedoya. U.S. national team rising star Tim Weah leads the current era, having just moved from Paris Saint-Germain to Lille for $11.4 million. None of them came to Ligue 1 directly from MLS, though.
Ligue 1 teams are among the best in Europe at scouting under-the-radar talent. If German and English clubs have figured out that it’s worth scouting America, why haven’t the French? MLS teams are producing lots of academy products with high ceilings, with the Union near the front of the pack. Many of those players could be bought for lower prices than prospects in Africa and South America command.
“There’s a mindset among a lot of clubs in Europe that the talent just isn’t there yet in the U.S., and I would disagree,” said Bordeaux president Joe DaGrosa, who last November became the second American to buy into a French club (Marseille’s Frank McCourt, former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the other).
Quillot sees the commercial potential more than the soccer potential, but he at least sees potential.
“It would be better for us as Ligue 1 to have more U.S. players playing in French clubs in order to increase the attractiveness of Ligue 1 for U.S. TV,” he said. “It’s not in our rules, but it’s part of our target [and] recommendation we give to the clubs.”
“It’s a good mix of good soccer, but also athletic guys, a lot of speed, and the quality is there,” Bedoya said. “If anybody likes to follow a league where you can try to pick out the next big star, I think Ligue 1, that’s where it is.”
He might not be able to broker a TV deal, but Bedoya would make a good salesman if Quillot wants one.