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(MARK BLINCH)
(MARK BLINCH)

The Usual Suspects

The rise of soccer on TV Add to ...

James Sharman remembers when he truly noticed the change in soccer: The host of The Score's Footy Show went to the first Toronto FC games when the MLS club began play in 2007.

"I was expecting to see the usual old guys," says the 12-year veteran of the all-sports cable network. "The same British and Italian and Portuguese guys who always showed up for soccer. But there were all these young Canadian guys instead. And they're still there."

As English Premier League play began last weekend - broadcast on The Score, Rogers Sportsnet and Setanta Sports - it is no exaggeration to say soccer in all its forms is very hot in Canada.

"It wasn't long ago that the traditional broadcasters were pooh-poohing soccer," says John Levy, chief executive officer of The Score. "How's a 1-0 game exciting? It takes a while for people to appreciate the talent playing the game. But that's what happens.

"The celebrity stuff with [Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David]Beckham hasn't hurt either. What you've seen is a knowledge base being formed, and now it's here."

The typical immigrant passion for the game has been married to the Generation Y fashion/celebrity culture embodied by Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Canadian stars such as Owen Hargreaves. Combined with Canada's new multicultural attitude - you no longer have to play hockey to be Canadian - soccer is very sticky on and off the pitch.

"Soccer, in particular the Premier League, has done such a great job marketing itself over the past couple of decades," Sharman says. "They've been ahead of the curve globally with tours, merchandising their logo, branding their superstars. The English Premier League has also really pushed its TV rights into the homes of North Americans."

They've also exploited the Web.

"Kids grew up listening to their fathers and uncles talking about their teams," Sharman says, "but they had no way to translate that or their own playing soccer recreationally. Now, they have a really easy way to connect with all that via the Internet."

And that's like a chorus of "Ole, Ole, Ole" to the ears of The Score, which gambled on controlling EPL rights a few years back. The channel sublets part of the package to Setanta (which then sublets EPL rights to Sportsnet).

"We're coming into the last year of a three-year deal with the EPL," Levy says. "We've had a ton of success with it. We're looking at continuing that relationship as the rights come up for renewal, and looking at other properties. What we want to do is pick the best of the soccer coverage out there and surround it with the conversation and programming that we do best."

In some ways The Score's efforts at popularizing the sport may hurt it come time to renew.

"Even though it makes us push a little bit more to hang onto the property, we'll find ways other ways to increase the value," Levy says. "That's what happens when you push the boundary. We were the first with the [on-screen] ticker, now everyone has it. We were the first to commoditize highlights, now everyone's got them. I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

What makes the acceptance of the sport paradoxical in North America is elite soccer has no interest in parity - the scared text for the NFL and Gary Bettman's NHL.

"There are probably only three teams in England with a chance to win it all this year," Sharman says. "But with promotion and relegation, you can support your team, know that Man U or Chelsea will come in once twice a year. It isn't all about winning in soccer. I know it sounds crazy, but it's about supporting your club whether it's a big club like Arsenal or Liverpool or a small club like Burnley, who are up in the Premiership this season."

It also hasn't hurt that provincial sports lotteries have used soccer in their games.

"Certainly, Pro-Line has helped," Sharman says. "Gamblers who aren't necessarily soccer fans have another medium to bet on. You can put some money on team you don't care about and it now becomes interesting."

There's plenty of inventory for Canadian fans to follow this upcoming season.

In addition to the EPL, Sportsnet began coverage of the UEFA Cup season last Tuesday, as well as following Canada's national teams. The CBC, meanwhile has Toronto FC and is the Canadian home for the upcoming 2010 World Cup from South Africa. TSN picks up ESPN's coverage of the Champions League and other UEFA contests.

While soccer ratings pale next to hockey, they remain very competitive with other televised sports in Canada.

Sportsnet, which does one EPL game per week, does a very respectable numbers for the off-peak Saturday mornings and afternoons: 2005-06: 71,700 viewers; 2006-07: 89,400; 2007-08: 84,200; 2008-09: 78,200.

English ESPN

It isn't just Canadian broadcasters that see soccer as a hot property. ESPN views the sport as its ticket into England's TV market.

When the European version of Setanta went bankrupt recently, ESPN swept in to acquire a package of 46 EPL games - something it had been denied in the past. The Disney-owned ESPN is hoping EPL games being telecast into English homes will bring eyeballs to their network there, which has been struggling for a foothold. Hey, get Dick Vitale, baby, and it'll all be beer and skittles. Whatever that means.

Brett Redux

The interminable Brett Favre saga (that ended with him signing with the Minnesota Vikings last Tuesday) was about more than the diva Green Bay Packers legend signing with a bitter NFL rival. It was also a major skirmish in the battle between ESPN and Fox Sports TV for bragging rights over journalistic scoops.

After months of saturation coverage by both sides looking for the definitive word on the veteran quarterback, ESPN declared Favre retired last week. "Not so fast," dogged Fox NFL insider Jay Glazer said last weekend. He'd heard Minnesota players still fully expected Favre to join their team after training camp broke.

ESPN - including new star reporter Adam Schefter, late of the NFL Network - launched a counteroffensive, saying sources had Favre staying home in Mississippi. The antipathy between the sides was palpable.

Then came last Tuesday's dramatic flip-flop by Favre - a major coup for Glazer against the "four letters," as some Fox employees label ESPN.

Expect the competition to get nasty, especially from Schefter, who must justify ESPN's decision to snap him up after missing on the Favre story.

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