ESPN, FOX and Univisión are Betting Millions That You'll Keep Watching Soccer

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It was a Tuesday afternoon up at my radio station, and the United States' 2-1 loss to Belgium in extra time had just ended, eliminating the American men's soccer team from the 2014 World Cup.

Depressed, I stood there staring at the television, slowly calculating how old I would be the next time I would get to watch a World Cup game, in 2018, when I heard a voice grumble behind me.

"Wondo, man."

I turned around, and it was my co-host, normally a self-proclaimed and proud "non-soccer watcher."

Quizzically, as if I were staring at an alien, I said, "Huh?"

"Wondo, man!" he frustratedly groused. "He missed that goal. If he makes that, we go to the quarterfinals!"

The "goal" my previously soccer-eschewing co-host was referring to was an open-net, possible game-winning opportunity late in regulation that America's Chris Wondolowski skied over the crossbar, and I'm virtually certain my neophyte soccer fan of a co-host was referring to him as "Wondo" because he had no idea how to pronounce "Wondolowski" (nor any idea 30 minutes earlier that "Wondo" even existed).

"Man," he frustratedly grumbled. "Making the quarterfinals would've been awesome...and the game would've been on a Saturday morning; we could've started drinking early!"

God bless America!

Indeed, beer and nationalism are a potent combination, and every four years, a profound love of country, competition and day drinking brings millions of Americans -together under the one-month umbrella of World Cup soccer.

The love is palpable, the numbers are undeniable.

The United States' June 22 opening-round game against Portugal was viewed by 24.7 million people in the United States (18.2 million on ESPN, 6.5 million on Univisión), a total that at the time trailed only the Super Bowl, the AFC and NFC conference title games, and the BCS title game in viewership.

That game was soon surpassed by the 2014 World Cup finals between Germany and Argentina, which drew 26.5 million viewers in the United States.

The World Cup boom is real.

However, as a soccer-watching nation, we've sat on the peak of these quadrennial soccer-interest spikes before, and when the confetti is all swept up and we've figuratively been given "last call," the question always remains the same:

Can America's obvious love for World Cup soccer translate into a mainstream love of MLS soccer?

For all the fits and starts soccer has historically had here in the United States, one thing is certain -- the sport has never been better equipped to compete on the American landscape than it is right now.

Its most potent weapon? An eight-year, $720 million contract that MLS and U.S. Soccer agreed to back in May with networks ESPN, FOX and Univisión that will provide unprecedented financial and scheduling -benefits that American soccer has never before seen.

Rob Stone covered the MLS for nearly two decades with ESPN, and he is now with FOX, and he says the biggest key to this new media rights deal is scheduling consistency.

"One of the biggest problems that the MLS has had is that the start times for the telecasts were different every week. There was no appointment viewing; we made fans work to find us," Stone says. "You absolutely can't do that when you're trying to grow a sport."

The "appointment" Stone refers to is now the crown jewel of the new television contract -- a Sunday evening doubleheader, which will be collaboratively promoted by ESPN and FOX with an early-evening game on ESPN2 followed by a night game on FOX Sports One.

How committed are all the parties -- ESPN, FOX and MLS -- to the success of this weekly destination night of soccer viewing? Stone says the networks have agreed to a level of cooperation never before seen in covering a professional sports league.

"There are a lot of leagues with multiple network partners, but none that have agreed to cross-promote the games the way ESPN and FOX will for the MLS," Stone says. "And I'm talking right down to the transition between games -- you'll have ESPN broadcasters directing viewers to switch directly to the FOX telecast for the second game. It's going to be really cool."

Having worked for both companies, Stone can speak better than anybody else to the -tele-vision landmark this represents, let alone soccer landmark.

"It's a massive level of commitment and -investment and displays a great belief in the -product of American soccer."

The bedrock of any sports league (or entertainment genre, for that matter) is the development of new stars, and certainly continued investment in that area will be another key to the future of MLS.

New, young American blood is needed, and $720 million should come in handy in that area.

Glenn Davis, former professional soccer player and current ESPN and Houston Dynamo broadcaster, says that player development in the United States has to be the foundation.

"The MLS television contract is certainly a lot of money, and I think you'll see teams using it to further invest in player development," Davis says. "The diversity of the league is a good thing, players from many nationalities, but the league always needs to be based on the development of the American player."

Player development is an area in which this country has made rapid strides, but there is much work to be done. The academies that MLS teams have set up to train young players and serve as a feeder system have been a fantastic start. The Houston Dynamo have an extensive list of homegrown talent, including current Dynamo goalkeeper Tyler Deric and forward Bryan Salazar.

Salazar is viewed by many experts as a player who can follow in the footsteps of current and former players like Brian Ching, Stuart Holden, Geoff Cameron and most recently Brad Davis as Houston Dynamo players on our country's national team.

From a business standpoint, MLS soccer continues to grow. A dozen teams are playing in new soccer-specific venues, including the Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium in downtown Houston. The league has plans to add at least three more teams in the next three years, taking the total number of teams to 22 overall.

Television ratings on English-speaking stations are up 80 percent year over year, and this is prior to the new television deal and before all its promotional horsepower kicks in.

The league and American soccer as a whole sit on the cusp of a perfect storm -- an era in which advertisers and networks see sports as a lucrative last bastion of live, DVR-proof programming fueled by the immediacy and global reach of social media and the Internet.

"Every four years with the World Cup, there's a bump in interest, but maybe this is the time it really takes hold," Davis acknowledges. "You know, with social media and the sport's popularity in the 18-to-35 crowd."

The numbers back up Davis's contention -- the two most tweeted sporting events in the social media platform's history are the Brazil-Germany World Cup quarterfinal (a 7-1 German rout) with 35.6 million tweets and the German victory over Argentina in the finals with 32.1 million tweets.

Third place? This year's Super Bowl with 24.9 million tweets.

According to Davis, in order to capitalize, soccer just needs to focus on doing soccer, so to speak.

"For so long, with soccer on television, we've been focused on trying to navigate around competing sports. We need to get over competition; there will always be competition," Davis says. "We need to have belief in our product and put forth a quality production." "And we need to 'star build.' It's got to be about the players."

If the American sports landscape were Seinfeld and our mainstream sports were Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George, then for most Americans, soccer has been kind of their "Newman," the enjoyable character who lives downstairs, who livens things up every so often.

Is there room in the United States sports mainstream landscape for another "main character"?

ESPN, FOX and Univisión are betting on it.

Betting $720 million, to be exact.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Sean-Cablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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