Friday, October 09, 2009

Sand vs. Sheep!!! Who Could Resist!?!

The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. (Screw you, Olympics. The next time you inspire enough passion for people to riot in the streets or come to the airport to throw rotten vegetables at the national team after being bounced by North Korea, you let me know. I'm sure NBC will get to work on a treacly human interest story to illustrate the point.) The qualification cycle for South Africa 2010 is coming to a close and is rife with storylines. The top two players in the world - Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (and in that order, thank you very much) - are both in danger of not qualifying. Regional rivals Denmark and Sweden face off with a spot on the line in the "our blondes are more comely than yours" bracket. Germany and Russia get together in Moscow with an automatic spot at stake, not that there is much history of conflict between those two nations. (If I were forced to watch that game without making WWII references, the end product would not be dissimilar from the episode of Beavis and Butthead where Mr. Buzzcut forbids the protagonists from laughing during Sex Ed. If only this game were being played in early December.) Neighbors and old rivals Argentina and Uruguay could play next week with a spot on the line.

In short, there are a ton of great matches to be played over the next week, matches that have positively enormous stakes, and few will be seen in this country. The reason is that FIFA gives the TV rights to the host federations and those federations sell to whatever media entities offer them the best deals. Thus, the Nats' game in Honduras on Saturday night that could end with our boys printing their boarding passes for Jan Smuts, er, Oliver Tambo International Airport will not be seen in this country except in certain bars, as if it were some 70s era stag party flick. Grant Wahl has the details:

The U.S. could clinch a World Cup berth on Saturday night, and not many American soccer fans will be watching.

That's the absurd situation we find ourselves in thanks to the screwy way that FIFA allows host countries to handle the video broadcast rights for World Cup qualifiers. As a result, the huge U.S.-Honduras game in San Pedro Sula (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET) will only be available in the U.S. on closed-circuit TV at a small number of bars and restaurants.

Keep in mind, we're talking about closed-circuit TV, not pay-per-view. In other words, you will not be able to see this game in your own home.

This is a trip back to the 1980s that nobody wants. The last event I saw on closed-circuit TV was the fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney more than 27 years ago.

How did this happen? I called Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of CONCACAF and a member of the FIFA executive committee, to find out. Blazer told me that for years, FIFA has allowed the host countries of World Cup qualifiers to sell the video rights to whomever they wish. Doing so, Blazer told me, allows national soccer federations to make much-needed money to support their operating expenses.

In the case of U.S.-Honduras, the Honduran federation sold the English- and Spanish-language video rights to a media company named Media World. ESPN, the usual broadcaster of U.S. games, was unable to reach a deal to buy the rights from Media World, nor were any other American cable or terrestrial TV outlets.

This problem extends beyond U.S. games. Because the rights to qualifiers are sold by each federation, we end up with a hodge-podge of games on Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV. We might have a huge qualifier being played between France and Italy, but we'll be forced to watch Estonia and Switzerland because our channels don't have the correct rights. In a flood of great games, the only live qualifier on GolTV this weekend is the barn-burner between Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago. Fox Soccer leads off with the match-up between bitter rivals Bahrain and New Zealand, before going to France vs. the Faroe Islands and the Denmark-Sweden tilt. One good game between the two networks.

If FIFA were in the 21st century, it would take control of the TV rights and license them out to major media outlets. For the U.S., they could sell the rights to all Nats games to ESPN, Mexico games to Univision, and then let Fox Soccer and GolTV bid on priority packages for the remainder. FIFA would make more money to distribute to the federations and it would help foster the growth of the game around the world by letting people see top games. Those of you who don't like footie, I could probably make you at least a casual fan over 90 minutes of Argentina-Uruguay; I'd have a hard time pulling that feat off with Bahrain-New Zealand.


Jesse said...

And this is exactly the reason why it's been so hard for me to get back into the realm of world soccer, or rather at least why I decided to pick a player to follow versus a team. I picked up on Ronaldo early on and have been a fan ever since. I've also never been one to pay for extra sports programming so that's probably a good bit of it, but the simple fact that it's almost impossible to catch any US team match on TV is a little ridiculous.

It's almost as if FIFA is conceding that this hemisphere quadrant is not worth the effort.

Matt said...

What I don't understand is why the major media outlets aren't buying the rights? Is Media World really bidding more than ESPN? Surely CONCACAF is selling to the highest bidder?

LD said...

Take it easy on Bahrain-NZ. It's the only matchup where it's win and qualify, lose and go home for both teams. Do or die.

Jesse said...

Hey, at least tonight's US match will be on ESPN2. Unfortunately, Davies is out and looks to be that way for quite some time.

I wonder how much impact this will have on Donovan.

Michael said...

That Davies injury is terrible. He was really coming into his own.

I am probably going to skip the Nats game tonight because they've already qualified. I am going to get Argentina-Uruguay on PPV, which is going to be exciting and morbid all at the same time.

Jesse said...

I plan on watching them just because I want to see how Bradley handles the injury and how he and Donovan adjust. Then again, since they have already qualified, Bradley might just sit the starters and let the backups get some game time.

And you are so right. Early on I thought Davies was playing too reckless and depending on his speed too much, but recently he has been really good and his game was really becoming more complete.