Fox Sports VP Calls Soccer, Not Baseball, 'Next National Pastime'

Cobi Jones -- Soccer ('92)

At a panel during Advertising Week in New York, media executives talk up the future of live TV sports. Soccer is cheered while NBC's treatment of the Olympic Games gets a thumbs down.

On the very day that Fox Sports and Major League Baseball made official a new $4 billion eight-year rights deal, Fox Sports executive Mike Mulvihill called soccer the "next national pastime."

Mulvihill, who is senior vice president of programming and research, wasn't attempting to make any slight towards professional baseball, which has long been known as America's pastime and has just inked new deals with Fox and Turner which will double MLB's annual take of TV money. The Fox executive was attempting to explain his enthusiasm for the growth of live sports as part of an Advertising Week industry panel in New York.

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The Fox Sports executive spoke at a session meant to address whether the market for sports television rights is sustainable or a bubble that will soon burst. On a panel, Mulvihill expressed positive feelings about baseball too, calling the Fox-MLB pact a "landmark deal" that will represent 25 years of partnership by 2020. And he's high on football as well, particularly the in-roads the sport has made among women. Mulvihill said that Fox's NFL game-of-the-week now is the broadcaster's top show among women in the 18-to-49 demographic.

But if broadcasters are going to realize significant profits from live sports, it might not be from airing the games of leagues already very popular in America. Not when the costs of such programming continue to skyrocket, thus leaving broadcasters with marginal returns. Instead, in a cluttered live sports marketplace, Fox sees soccer as its ticket to future success. The network already broadcasts UK's Premiership League and will be televising the World Cup by the end of the decade.

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Mulvihill pointed to a statistic that the last World Cup had a bigger rating in the 18-35 demo than NCAA basketball. He says that television at large is skewing older, but that soccer is gaining popularity among younger audiences. He told the Advertising Week audience that there's a risk of people always touting soccer as the sport of the future. Nevertheless, he added, "I like to think of (soccer) as a 50-year evolution. We're halfway through.

The other panelists agreed.

Rob Prazmark, CEO of 21 Sports & Entertainment Marketing Group, a leader in brokering sports sponsorships, said the "passion" and the "truly global" nature of soccer is driving Corporate America to sign up. His company recently conducted research for Johnson & Johnson, analyzing where the brand should put its money. Among the options considered were sponsoring the Nobel prizes to sponsoring  hospital ships. Ultimately, Johnson & Johnson chose the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

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Soccer earned the biggest endorsement from the panelists, but live sports as a whole commanded respect. Although the panel was advertised as being a discussion that would answer the question, "Can the Marketplace Afford Sports Anymore?" it wound up being more cheerleading than anything. With anxieties that include cord-cutting, piracy, technological distractions and commercial-skipping DVRs, each of the panelists agreed that live sports offers the television and advertising industry an unrivaled sense of security.

Such feelings will hardly be shocking. Neither will comments from Ava Jordhamo, president at Zenith Media, about the need to develop better audience measurement metrics to detail not only whether consumers are watching, but also how they are engaging with programming.

Perhaps more surprising were comments directed at NBC's stewardship of the Olympics. The London Games might have provided the network with great ratings, but the panelists don't think that the Peacock Network is doing a particularly good job realizing its opportunities and offering something more for advertisers.

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 "With respect to my friends at 30 Rock, they pay a lot of money," said Prazmark. "They share the games with the world, and then put it in a box until the next Olympics cycle. They don't do much with it. The problem for sponsors is that they want to have this every day. They would like to see Olympic trials every year and see leagues created out of it."

Prazmark added that the other networks at the moment are hesitant about showing Olympic sports (e.g. track and field or swimming) because that would "promote NBC down the line."

Jordhamo agreed, saying it was hard for any of her brand clients to leverage the Olympics. "If you are not a ring sponsor, it's hard to create a consistent campaign," she said.

On the other hand, not everyone in the industry would agree. The panel on the future of live sports on television was sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is now an official partner at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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