Talking Soccer with Jeff Carlisle of ESPN

1.  Is soccer at a disadvantage in the U.S. compared to other major sports (football, basketball, baseball)?  Why is it that the world’s game can’t seem to flourish arguably it’s most successful country?

JC – Soccer is definitely at a disadvantage compared to the major sports, where there is much more money and media attention.

The single biggest reason for why soccer hasn’t flourished more is that the sports marketplace is incredibly crowded. Think about how so many Olympic sports struggle for attention in non-Olympic years. The competition for people’s money and time is very intense. And a lot of the other sports have had a huge head start over soccer. That makes it an uphill climb from the beginning.

The fact that the US has not been successful in soccer compared to the rest of the world is a factor as well. Americans love “winners” and often don’t pay attention to sports where they aren’t “the best.” In some circles it is also looked upon as a “foreign” sport, and is therefore not deserving of their time, although this has decreased over the years. I see a lot more mainstream acceptance of the sport than I did 20 years ago.

2.  Do you find it difficult to be a soccer fan (on a national and international level)?

JC – I think in many respects, it’s easier than it’s ever been. Games are almost always on basic cable, be it US national team, MLS, English premier league, or UEFA Champions League. Then there are channles like GolTV and Fox Soccer Channel. Ten years ago it was a lot more difficult. There just weren’t as many games available.

I think going to games is easier now too, although this can be tough on a limited budget given how big the country is. Fan groups like Sam’s Army make it easier for people to travel in groups, as opposed to individuals shouldering all the costs themselves.

The internet has also made it much easier to get information about players and teams.

There is still a ways to go. It would be nice if you could see highlights on SportsCenter for every MLS game like they do in other sports. However, until the ratings and fan interest grows even more, that won’t happen.

3.  Looking at the non-soccer or fringe fans, should it be difficult to pick soccer (as not only a fan but to understand the game as well) in the U.S., whether that be at a local MLS level or U.S. men’s national team level?

JC – It’s easy to pick up the basics, but tough to pick up the nuances. Given the size of the field, it can be tough to pick up subtlties, which I think most American fans are used to seeing on a basketball-sized field. The continuous action makes it tougher to notice these things, since there aren’t a lot of breaks in game action where replays can be watched. So much happens away from the ball as well. And I mean 30-40 yards away. I think that isn’t the case with most other American sports.

4.  Considering the coverage issues surrounding the U.S. men’s national team ( the match at Mexico – pre NBC bailing us all out and the recent qualifying match at Honduras), do you see this becoming a problem in the future?  How will that effect the U.S. fan base (including those fringe fans)?

JC – I don’t look at this as being a long-term problem. People forget how much easier it is to see games now. They’ve become a bit spoiled. I can remember going to a bar as recently as 2001 to see a World Cup qualifier (US at Honduras). That was the norm. It isn’t anymore, which is why there were so many complaints when the Mexico and Honduras matches were not shown on a mainstream English-language TV channel.

And as bad as the Honduras game was, I was still able to watch it on the internet. It wasn’t ideal mind you, but I was able to see it.

The more the fan base grows (and it’s grown a lot in recent years) the less likely something like Honduras will happen again. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but I think it’s less likely.

5.  Media coverage has picked up in recent times, but still has a way to go to catch up to the rest of the world.  I’d attribute the U.S. rise to three things: Beckham’s arrival, ESPN adding regular EPL coverage, and the U.S.’s performance in the Confederations Cup this summer.  Would agree with those three?  Disagree?  What can be done to keep this is a upswing?

JC – I think the increase in coverage started well before these events. ESPN has made a massive investment in soccer. They showed Champions League games for years. I believe they showed every single game of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups live. Ditto for Euro 2008 where the US wasn’t even playing. And FSC has been showing the EPL for well over a decade. The improvement of MLS, both in terms of the play on the field, as well as their economics has made a difference as well. I think these are all baby steps.

Frankly, I don’t think Beckham being here has meant much change in media coverage. There was a short-term bump in attendance and attention, but now you’ll find that attendances are still in the 15k to 16k range that they’ve been in for a while. ESPN might still be pimping him, and he has certainly helped the economics of MLS in terms of sponsorships and shirt sales, but I think the media coverage is largely the same.

6.  Along the same lines, with increase coverage there is a thought that the large media companies are putting sub-par analysts on TV for the true fans and the fringe fans.  They can tend to promote the product and not the game.  While those looking for the best coverage analysis can find it online.

JC – I’m not sure I buy that. Look at ESPN when they brought in Dave O’Brien, a guy with immense experience covering baseball. He really struggled with his broadcasts during the 2006 World Cup. Meanwhile a guy like JP Dellacamera also does a lot of hockey. Is he supposed to be sub-par? I don’t think so.

I think no matter what guy is hired, part of his job is to promote the product. This mandate comes from the network, not the guys actually doing the broadcast. That said, I think the very overt promoting of guys like Beckham isn’t as over-the-top as it was in the beginning.

7.  In the big picture of soccer fandom in the U.S. (media coverage, match attendacne, interest across the nation, etc.) what do you see happening in the future?  Has soccer hit its apex here in the U.S.?  Will it carry over to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa?  After the World Cup will it drop off again?  How highly dependent on how the U.S.’s performance in South Africa is all of this?

JC – I think it will continue to gradually grow. There is no magic bullet, although a deep run in next summer’s World Cup would certainly help. That said, if the U.S. goes three and out, the game will definitely survive, and continue to grow.

– – – – –

I’d like to thank Jeff for talking to me, sharing his knowledge and opinion about soccer fandom in the U.S.

You can find Jeff’s work at the U.S. Soccer section of ESPN’s Soccernet.  You can also see all of his previous work here.

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One Response to “Talking Soccer with Jeff Carlisle of ESPN”

  1. rachelciarleglio Says:

    I think this interview was great for your projects overall theme. This interviewee is certainly a professional and knows a lot about the game. Not only does he see the game aspect, he see the media aspect because he works in media so it gives a good perspective on that side of things. You questions for this interview were the perfect amount ( a little lengthly) but got great answers out of him. I think this was overall a very effective interview for you longterm.

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