By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
When it comes to watching their favorite sport on television, American soccer fans have never had it so good. ESPN's outlets show matches from MLS, England, Spain and major international competitions, many in high definition. Two cable stations -- Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV -- carry games from around the world, and Spanish-language networks offer an array of choices.
But on Saturday night, when the U.S. national team plays in Honduras with a chance to clinch a berth in the 2010 World Cup, fans won't find the match on their TV. Instead, they will have to locate a bar or restaurant that is showing the game via secure closed-circuit feed and pay a cover charge of at least $15.
In an era when seemingly every sporting event is available for viewing in the comforts of home, whether over the air, on cable and satellite or through pay-per-view services, this U.S. match is stirring memories of a bygone era when fans gathered at arenas and banquet halls to watch international soccer and world championship boxing.
Each of the previous eight U.S. matches in the final round of regional qualifying was available on an ESPN affiliate or, in the case of the Americans' visit to Mexico in August, Telemundo and a sister station.
For this match, however, communications firm Media World purchased the U.S. rights from the Honduran soccer federation, which, as the host of the game, was entitled, under regulations set by CONCACAF, the sport's regional governing body, to sell the property as it saw fit.
Media World then shopped the rights to ESPN, among others, but after engaging in initial talks early this summer, "it became clear that they wanted to go the closed-circuit route, and that was it," said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's vice president for programming and acquisitions, who declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations.
Consequently, in order to watch the match, fans will have to visit an establishment that arranged to receive the closed-circuit feed of the 10 p.m. game. Most of the 30-plus venues in the Washington area offering it cater to the Latin American community, but because interest among U.S. supporters is high, Media World also made a late effort to cater to the "English" market.
By Wednesday afternoon, 29 such sites nationwide had committed, including four in this area: Fado Irish Pub and Molly Malone's in the District, Summers Restaurant in Arlington and Slainte Irish Pub in Baltimore. For the right to show the match, those businesses had to pay in advance -- about $15 per person based on capacity. They will hope to offset costs through attendance and food and drink orders.
Most locations will charge $15 to $25 but also offer buffets and specials. Game commentary will be in English.
"It's a financial loser," said Patrick Russell, owner of Slainte in Fell's Point. "But I have a loyal base of customers who come here to watch soccer, and I don't want to disappoint them."
Members of Barra Brava, a D.C. United supporters group, will gather at Molly Malone's, a Capitol Hill venue that can accommodate about 200 customers.
"It's ridiculous," said Paul Planzer, 29, a Barra Brava member who has helped launch the Washington chapter of the American Outlaws, a U.S. national team fan group. "The only people who know where to go to see the game are the real hard-core fans; the casual fan won't see it. Soccer is not the biggest thing in this country, but this isn't going to help."
TV access is also an issue in soccer-mad England, where the national team's match against Ukraine on Saturday will be available online and in select movie theaters only. (England has already qualified for the World Cup.)
Roger Huguet, chief executive of Imagina U.S., which is affiliated with Media World, said: "We first approached ESPN, but I don't think they fully understood how the final phase [of qualifying] would go. They already had all the rights [to the U.S. home games] and probably thought that they didn't need the game or that we would negotiate later on."
Other networks were contacted, he said, but "the closed-circuit guys were the ones more interested and [showed more] perseverance, so we closed the deal with them."
Many fans have blamed the blackout on the U.S. Soccer Federation. And while the USSF has no role in TV negotiations involving national team games played abroad, this episode has prompted the organization to review its policy about awarding the foreign broadcast rights for matches played in the United States.
"We want to continue to be good partners within the region when it comes to television rights because we believe that's the right thing to do, but it's also extremely important for us to provide the broadcast to as many of our fans as possible," USSF spokesman Neil Buethe said. "To help ensure we are able to do that in the future, we will assess all of our options regarding television rights agreements."