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ESPN defends ratings dip, remains firmly committed to soccer

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After much was made of ESPN's dip in the ratings year to year for the Spring quarter, the cable giant has come back with an explanation of events. They've also reaffirmed their commitment to soccer.

Ian Walton

Earlier this week I wrote about NBC Sports Network's continued climb in viewership and ESPN's dip in the second quarter when looking at year to year comparisons. With Fox Sports One set to launch in August, there was speculation in several places on the internet as to just what caused the dip and what it could mean when more competition enters the ring.

Last night's Letterman, even, jumped on the bandwagon by doing a Top 10 list of ESPN's lowest rated programs. Naturally ESPN figured it was about time to go on the defensive, giving details as to why this dip happened. The original Sports Business Journal article blamed the dip on reduced viewership for the NBA playoffs, ESPN's tentpole in the second quarter. On their Frontrow blog, ESPN called the dip a rare aberration.

ESPN acknowledged that the NBA playoff ratings were down year to year, but focused more on last year's finals being particularly well watched. With the lockout shortening the schedule last season, teams went into the playoffs hot. This resulted in seven Conference Finals games on ESPN (just three this year). This year's playoffs also featured fewer big market teams on ESPN, with the Lakers and Heat only appearing twice. The Boston Celtics also only appeared twice; in all ESPN had 31 fewer NBA games year to year.

What was good to hear from a soccer perspective was ESPN citing the UEFA European Championship tournament last year as another ratings tentpole. The cable network broadcast 21 Euro matches last year, and this year had half that with the Confederations Cup. With fewer teams involved, there was also less national interest according to ESPN.

This makes ESPN losing the World Cup rights after 2014 look even worse. If major soccer tournaments are the other pole holding up the second quarter tent, the Fox Sports One looks more viable in the long term than it may have initially. If Fox Sports can manage to wrestle the NBA rights from ESPN, suddenly things are quite shaken up.

I reached out to Bill Hofheimer, senior director of communications at ESPN, to gauge how committed the network is to soccer coverage in the future. "ESPN is proud of its commitment to soccer and the way we've presented the sport at all levels from world-class global events like the men's and women's FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Football Championship to Premier League, MLS and the U.S. and Mexican National Teams."

"We remain firmly committed to soccer," Hofmeimer continued, "and that will certainly be reflected in our unprecedented coverage of the World Cup in Brazil next summer and in other creative ways we continue to cover the sport, such as the creation ESPN FC on TV, ESPN's new -- and first-ever -- digital-based daily soccer news and information television show, which debuts August 11."

The tentpoles for sports coverage in television's second quarter are the NBA playoffs (currently ESPN), NHL playoffs (currently NBC Sports), and major international soccer tournaments (ESPN). Filler products like MLS and yes even the national team (outside of major tournaments) depend on these highly rated programs as lead ins and for advertisement.

If there's a grand conclusion to be reached here it's that ratings will fluctuate, the cable sports broadcasting market is only going to continue to grow and change, and soccer plays a significant role in that future. As a soccer enthusiast in America, that's a good thing.