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ESPN Aims to Build U.S. Audience for Soccer

March 27, 2008 2:14 PM

Beckham? Check.

Major television outlets? Check.

Promotion? Check.

With a full season under its belt as part of the ESPN family, Major League Soccer appears to have the wind at its back heading into its 13th season as a league.

ESPN’s $64 million investment in the sport, in an eight-year deal, features a regular Thursday night time slot and a multiplatform promotional machine feeding audiences with the sport.

Needless to say, there are no more excuses as the world’s most popular sport continues to seek traction with American audiences.

“MLS is one of a number of soccer properties that ESPN is now covering, which includes the World Cup,” said JP Dellacamera, who will be calling play-by-play action for the sport on ABC and ESPN. “I’m encouraged by the way ESPN is talking about covering MLS this year and like the dedication they seem to have for not just the MLS but for soccer as a whole.”

Dellacamera noted that with both the players on the field and the stadiums improving all around the league, it made the overall presentation more impressive for audiences and more likely to draw new fans to the sport.

And then there’s L.A. Galaxy star David Beckham, who should be healthy enough to play this season.

“MLS was growing at a very good rate prior to David Beckham, but anyone who doesn’t think David accelerated the growth of the sport doesn’t understand soccer,” Dellacamera said. “Beckham transcends the sport much like Tiger Woods does for golf and Michael Jordan did for basketball. I think he’s the reason more players want to come here and why more wealthy individuals want to own MLS franchises.”

From a ratings point of view, ESPN earned a 0.2 cable rating/202,000 homes for its 14 MLS games before Beckham joined the Galaxy last year. The night he debuted with the team, ESPN scored a record 1.0 rating and was watched by about 1.468 million people.

Here’s a look at ESPN’s broadcast plans for the league this year.

The company’s high-definition coverage of its 13th Major League Soccer season will kick off with a double-header Thursday, April 3, with the New England Revolution visiting the Chicago Fire at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the San Jose Earthquakes visiting the Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

For the first time, ESPN Deportes, ESPN’s domestic Spanish-language network, will feature a companion telecast of all MLS prime-time Thursday matches, with separate booth commentators. The MLS series will be branded “Jueves por la Noche” for the network’s core Hispanic soccer audience.

The first U.S. over-the-air television network soccer double-header, on ABC and ABC HD on June 29, will feature Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy visiting DC United at noon, followed by the network’s presentation of the UEFA European Football Championship 2008 (Euro 2008) title match from Vienna at 2:30 p.m.

ABC and ABC HD will broadcast the MLS Cup 2008 at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23 from the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

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