Without much fanfare, soccer will take another big step into the American mainstream this weekend when Manchester United's game at Arsenal becomes the first English Premier League match to be televised live by a U.S. over-the-air network.
"To do this 10 years ago, had we put to the affiliates that we wanted to take the time to show a soccer game, we would have been either laughed at or it would have been a violent and an immediate rebellion,'" said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who is putting the match on his main network.
These days, EPL games are more common on television in the U.S. than in England. In the homeland of soccer, the 3 p.m. (10 a.m. EST) Saturday games are blacked out to protect attendance of matches in the lower leagues, which may sound somewhat familiar to NFL fans in cities like Jacksonville and Cincinnati.
In the United States, pretty much every game is available if a fan is willing to channel surf cable broadcasters Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus and ESPN2, or look at online services foxsoccer.tv and espn3.com. Many games also are broadcast on the Spanish-language cable networks of Fox and ESPN.
Fox is ramping up with this weekend's broadcast: While Fox Soccer is available in 41 million homes, its over-the-air network is received in 114.7 million.
"I think Fox is taking a bold step," said former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, who runs his own media consulting firm. "The commitment that Fox has made to soccer, interestingly enough, is based on the world game rather than the game that is played in the United States. I think research and audience-gathering information indicates there is considerable interest in worldwide professional soccer, particularly coming from England."
Top European divisions, especially the Premier League, have better, faster players than Major League Soccer, stars with the highest salaries who attract the most attention. The gaps in talent and revenue, while closing, are still huge — sort of like the difference between the NBA and basketball leagues in Italy and Turkey.
So before U.S. sports start each weekend, increasing numbers are turning their TV sets early to watch matches from England.
Live games and premieres of recorded EPL games on Fox Soccer have averaged 142,000 viewers this season, an 8 percent increase from 2010-11, according to Nielsen Media Research. ESPN2's viewers are up 12 percent to 299,000.
That's small compared to the numbers generated by the replays Fox experimented with earlier this season on its main network, when games on Sept. 18, Oct. 2 and Nov. 20 were each seen by about 1.6 million viewers. All three followed live telecasts earlier in the day on Fox Soccer.
Fox started the cable soccer network in 1996, when it was known as Fox Sports International, and has steadily intensified involvement in the sport, adding the premium channel Fox Soccer Plus two years ago.
The over-the-air Fox network televised the European Champions League final for the first time in 2010, drawing 1.6 million viewers for Inter Milan's win over Bayern Munich, and the audience increased to 2.6 million last May for Barcelona's victory over Manchester United.
Those matches are among the most-watched in the world, behind only big games at the World Cup and European Championship. Sunday's 11 a.m. EST game at London's Emirates Stadium is just a league match, one of 38 for each club during a season that stretches from August until May.
On Feb. 5, Super Bowl Sunday, Fox's main network will televise what it calls "the game before the game," Chelsea's match against Manchester United at London's Stamford Bridge starting at 11 a.m. EST.
"People have been saying since the beginning of time in the U.S. that soccer is the sport of tomorrow, yet tomorrow never comes," Hill said. "We're not saying that's ever going to take over. It's never doing to dominate, it's never going to replace college football or any sports, but it's going to grow over the next 10-20 years to an incredibly strong niche."
Fox Soccer's average viewership is a fraction of the 2.8 million for the big network's Saturday Major League Baseball coverage during the 2011 regular season, the 2.7 million for NBA coverage on ESPN and TNT this season and the NHL's 317,000 average on Versus/NBC Sports Network.
Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore thinks his clubs' preseason U.S. tours in recent summers also have helped boost interest. And unlike Italy and Spain, which schedule their best matches for weekend nights, the EPL benefits from time slots that largely don't conflict with American sports.
"U.S. sports fans seem to be getting into soccer more and more," Scudamore said. "The Premier League is perhaps the most compelling soccer completion on offer right now — hugely competitive with star players and clubs that are truly global in their standing. It has to start with the sporting side, because if that's not right then all the timing, marketing and commercial factors don't mean a thing."
The presence of U.S. national team players in the EPL has helped to boost ratings.
"You have Americans making a difference in the biggest league in the world," Fox Sports General Manager David Nathanson said. "We are putting a bet that not only interest in the sport will grow, but that the Americans playing at the highest level will continue to flourish the way Tim Howard and Landon Donovan have," he said, referring to a pair of Americans starring for Everton.
American soccer interest spiked during the 2010 World Cup and last year's Women's World Cup, both on ESPN. After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Fox takes over U.S. broadcast rights for 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar).
Fox hired studio host Rob Stone from ESPN, and he makes his debut this weekend after heading over to England, where he conducted a 45-minute interview with United manager Alex Ferguson, who rarely sits for one-on-ones. Piers Morgan, a huge Arsenal supporter, will be part of the pregame show.
Since Nathanson became head of Fox Soccer two years ago, the network has improved its production values. It now creates its own graphics. For Sunday's game, it will use the audio feed of News Corp. affiliate Sky Sports in Britain with top announcers Martin Tyler and Alan Smith, rather than the international feed created by IMG's Premier League Productions.
English soccer has had higher production values than most of its European counterparts — better-known broadcasters, more games in high definition, higher quality preview and recap shows.
Television has driven sports for decades, and European soccer has the type of audience demographics TV executives covet. For last May's Champions League final, Hill said the average age of viewers was under 35, and they were affluent, educated and tended to be urban.
The landscape for sports on U.S. television no longer stops at the shores of North America.