ESPN lands English Premier League broadcast rights

For the record, the press release went out at 10:11 p.m. on a Friday night.

ESPN has struck a deal with Fox Soccer International, which owns Fox Soccer Channel, to air 48 English Premier League soccer games on ESPN2 in the 2009-10 season.

As in the season that starts in just over seven hours as I write this post.

In fact, if you don’t see this until late in the morning, you’ll have missed the first game: Chelsea vs. Hull City at 7:45 a.m. Eastern time. The broadcast will begin at 7:40.

Hull City’s roster includes U.S. national team forward Jozy Altidore. But as Washington Post soccer maestro Steven Goff tweeted earlier tonight, Altidore will miss the game because of work permit issues.

(It’s complicated, but just take it for what it is that he won’t be playing. We can discuss the weirdness of the work permit system some other time.)

Anyway, back to the news at hand, which is a big deal for two reasons. First, it gives the Premier League what is almost certainly its biggest ever broadcast platform on American television. ESPN2 reaches 98 million households, compared to Fox Soccer channel’s 34 million or so.

Second, it means that ESPN once again has a major European soccer property to broadcast in the U.S. after losing the UEFA Champions League to Fox Soccer Channel.

It's nice to have the World Cup and MLS on your channel, and you can get all kinds of games on But what you put on someone's television is still a much bigger deal than what you put on someone's computer.

ESPN2 aired a package of Monday EPL games in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 season, and I don’t know what its total distribution was back then. But I think we can safely say that the channel is more significant now than it was then, when all its highlight shows were labeled “2night” instead of “Tonight.”

Ireland-based Setanta Sports also airs a package of EPL games in the U.S. But the part of the company that airs games in the United Kingdom went bankrupt earlier this year, and ESPN acquired Setanta’s rights.

Once that happened, it was only a matter of time before ESPN worked out a deal for United States broadcast rights. I figured it would happen for the 2010-11 season, and I’m a bit surprised they got a deal done this quickly.

It certainly makes sense, though. I suspect FSC will get first dibs on games, Setanta and ESPN third, but there’s plenty of games to go around.

Here’s ESPN’s slate through September. Again, all games will air on ESPN2. Broadcast times listed are Eastern: and include a five-minute pregame show

August 22: Wigan Athletic vs. Manchester United, 9:55 a.m.
August 24: Liverpool vs. Aston Villa, 2:55 p.m.
August 29: Chelsea vs. Burnley, 7:40 a.m.
September 12: Liverpool vs. Burnley, 9:55 a.m.
September 19: Burnley vs. Sunderland, 7:40 a.m.
September 26: Portsmouth vs. Everton, 7:40 a.m.
September 28: Manchester City vs. West Ham, 2:55 p.m.

In general, ESPN2 will air the 7:45 a.m. ET Saturday kickoff. If there is no game at that hour, ESPN will air a 10 a.m. kickoff. Twelve of the 48 games in the package will be on Mondays, with a 3 p.m. kickoff time.

UPDATE: As jrobs notes in the comments, the games are being broadcast in high definition. It wasn't clear from the press release whether that would be the case, but it is. It is not the case with FSC's broadcasts right now, but I've heard rumors FSC will go HD when the Champions League kicks off later this month.

I said before that there are two reasons why this is big news, but there’s a third one that could have even bigger consequences in the longer term: no one knows what the impact of this will be on Major League Soccer.

There are a lot of soccer fans in the U.S., especially in the Northeast, who would rather spend $20 to watch an English Premier League game on TV at a bar than spend $20 to buy a ticket to watch their local MLS team in person. Putting EPL games on a broad distribution platform could make it even easier for those fans to turn their noses up at MLS.

Now, there are plenty of people out there - myself included - who believe that watching a game on TV and watching a game in person are not mutually exclusive. But I also am under no illusions that the quality of play in MLS is comparable to the quality of play in the EPL and other top European leagues.

The question therefore becomes whether the armchair American sports fan - noted Tottenham Hotspur supporter Bill Simmons, for example - will prefer watching the English game.

In addition to the quality of play, English stadiums are almost always sold out. That's not the case with the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas.

(Harsh, but true.)

I’m willing to be an optimist and argue that MLS will benefit if its games are cross-promoted on EPL telecasts, and I’d be really surprised if that doesn’t happen.

I also believe that an increase in the amount of soccer on TV in America is a good thing in general. If kids grow up watching the sport on TV and wanting to play it professionally, they’ll surely come across MLS at some point.

The bigger the talent pool in American soccer, the more chances MLS has to get some of those players to play in this country. As the quality of play in MLS improves, so will domestic and international interest in the league.

And if that translates into larger crowds and TV rights fees some day, then maybe MLS will finally be able to pay the kinds of salaries required to convince top American players to stay in this country.

One of the biggest problems afflicting U.S. soccer right now is that a number of its top players are sitting on the bench at European clubs. That includes Jozy Altidore, who moved to Hull City in part because he couldn’t get much playing time at Spanish power Villareal.

Oguchi Oneywu is another example. He just moved to AC Milan, and in doing so became the highest-profile American player anywhere in Europe. But if he doesn’t get on the field, he could be out of game shape for the U.S. national team’s key World Cup qualifiers in September and October.

Anyway, that’s a pretty long rant from me. I’m going to sleep so that I can try to wake up for the morning kickoff.

You tell me: How will ESPN’s deal for English Premier League rights affect the American soccer landscape?