USL announced two significant news items in recent weeks related to game production. The first, a deal with ESPN to broadcast the 2016 USL championship game on television and to stream a game weekly on ESPN3 represents an opportunity for the league in the short term. The other, the league setting up a USL Productions unit that will centralize video production, including match streams, beginning in 2017, aims for the future of soccer video content.
Much has been made of the “cord cutters” phenomenon in recent years, in which people have said enough to expensive cable and satellite TV networks and simply gone without a television package, instead opting to use streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the like) to consume entertainment.
And while live sports were thought to be the last bastion really subverting this trend, that’s not entirely been the case. In some regards, major pro sports leagues have been ahead of the curve, as most of them offer some sort of subscription service online to watch games (with the usual caveats that local games and national broadcasts are blacked out). And for leagues like the USL, who don’t have the cachet to have a national television deal these days, putting all the league’s games for free on YouTube has been a terrific option to pull in some of this cord cutter demographic.
So some fans were upset that the ESPN3 game of the week was going to limit access to broadcasts that were freely available on YouTube, setting up a barrier to promoting the league.
That’s a fair point, but the prestige of USL being able to say “We’ve got a broadcast deal with ESPN” is not insignificant. When it comes to sponsors and improving the reputation of a sports league, even in intangibles like having a presence on the country’s biggest sports network means there will be benefits. Plus, only one game is covered by this arrangement, so the vast majority of games are still accessible on YouTube.
As for the USL Productions plan, it makes sense on a number of fronts. With USL changing substantially the past three years, including independent teams in soccer-hungry markets and MLS2 teams jumping into the fray, the landscape and scope of production values, most notably on game broadcasts, varies widely. A few USL teams have local television broadcast deals and so the YouTube streams are well-produced, with a good announcing crew, capable camera technicians, and good use of graphics. Other teams…well, let’s just say some of the other teams struggle to even remotely approach the standard of the best broadcasts in the league.
Having the league centralize control over production of games and other video content, assuming the quality of the league’s mandates is high, will raise the level for all teams around the league. Again, when trying to embark on a campaign to raise the quality of the league and attract more fans, the on-field product is only part of the equation. Yes, the quality of play makes a difference, but other matters like elevating the production quality of game broadcasts will also make USL look more professional and liable to bring in more sponsors, media interest and ultimately, fans. It won’t begin until next season, but it certainly will be interesting to see how much video content can be blown out.
All in all, the deal with ESPN and establishment of USL Productions should help bolster the league in the short- and long-term.