Wednesday, August 04, 2010

EPL Mailbag Episode 1

Ok, I have no idea how often these are going to come, and I have no idea how often I will be able to write about the English Premiership at all.

But, for once, when I blog about this stuff, it is a labor of love rather than doing something to further the career or the show's popularity. When I write about the Cowboys or Stars or Rangers, it is for you and for me, but it is with the show's success somewhere in the equation.

When I write about Everton or Tottenham or now, Blackpool, I can rest assured that A) this will never be on the air as Dan and the boys will not stand for it and B) there are not enough English Soccer people to impact the ratings one way or another.

With this realization does come the truth that because of all of this, I will not be able to keep to a schedule. But, I must confess that I think about the EPL a ton, and I will want to write quite a bit about it over the course of the season. I want to help you enjoy the league, because despite what my colleagues at the station say, I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is significant soccer growth in this country and I want to be able to say that I was there before it was cool.

I began following the EPL in the 2000 season, after getting involved a bit in the 1998 World Cup. I spent a bit of time considering what team I might follow, but in the end, I chose Liverpool FC for a few reasons that you can further investigate in an essay I wrote on the topic in 2005 .

In 2000, it was barely on television and it was certainly not cool. Since then, I have seen it slowly and gradually become more and more visible. I love it, because unlike any other sport on the rise, it has seemed to do it without any help from the media. MMA, for instance, has tons of supporters in the young media. If you are a sports talker under the age of 40, chances are pretty good you know all about the UFC and have seen some of the fights. But, the EPL? The World Cup? I think it is pretty clear that when you listen to guys on your favorite sports radio station talk about soccer, they still either want to poop on it, or just launch into their stand-up routine about how soccer sucks.

Fine. Feel that way. Soccer doesn't need your help. It is slowly seeping into the American periphery without assistance from Sports Radio. Oh well.

Now, before I drive anyone away with my defiance on the topic, allow me to share my views on soccer as it stands today. Then, we will answer some email and become friends that do this more and more over the course of the season.

The Product Had To Knock Your Socks Off

In the past, when people have tried to convince you soccer was sweet, they did so with a product that was not "best in the world". They might have been trying to tell you that NASL or MLS is what you need to "give a chance". Well, this is flawed from jump. Just like trying to convince someone that baseball is awesome, but then showing them a minor league game or that basketball is great, so here is a German League game, it just doesn't work. You must have the best players in the world. You must have Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, and Alex Ovechkin selling their sports. But, in soccer, we tried to sell you Alexi Lalas?

No chance.

You had to see Messi. Or Rooney. Or Drogba. Or Villa. Or Torres. Or Crissy Ronaldo. You had to see the best in the world who can perform magic tricks on the grass with the ball. The guys who are the most popular athletes in the world. You could not see a guy in Dallas who is paid $60k and couldn't make even a middle of the road team in England or Spain and understand why the sport intoxicates those who are immersed in it.

And the only way this could happen is if the sport was available to you on your couch. Easily. And without a subscription cost. Which leads us to.....

The Revolution Needed To Be Televised.

In 2000, there were almost no games live. And those on delay were not very reliable. If you fell in love with a team and needed their matches it was not pleasant. Slowly, but surely, things started happening. Obsessive-Compulsive types like me would then be interested in PPV packages. I clearly remember paying $350 for one season of PPV matches. Another year, I spent $20 a weekend on PPV for Liverpool. This demonstrates my mental weaknesses and the inaccessible nature of the EPL. How many people would pay more for the EPL than they did for the NFL? Nationwide, I bet fewer than 1,000. That is not going to grow the sport.

Directv went the PPV route for many years. Fox World became Fox Soccer. Games went from 2 or 3 a weekend to now, where if you have the means, you can see pretty much 8 of the 10 matches. Only the very worst matches are unavailable. Then came highlight shows and a Sportscenter-type nightly show that was produced in the USA called Fox Soccer Report.

Fox wasn't the key, though. ESPN somehow saw the 2002 World Cup as a worthy endeavor. If I am not mistaken, MLS bought the rights to the World Cup in 2002 and sold them on to ESPN. Either way, ESPN enters a relationship with MLS and the World Cup and their needles start to move a bit even though the '02 World Cup was played at 3 in the morning. Then, slow and steady growth continues to happen to where in 2006 the World Cup was shown with great depth by ESPN. Their bosses begin to see the value in what international soccer has to offer. The Beckham experiment didn't hurt either as ESPN did some big numbers there, too.

And that is the tipping point.

ESPN and FOX both saw what was here. And they started to compete with eachother. This is far from NBC and CBS competing for NFL rights, but we all know that the best way to see improved products in all walks of life is for there to be competition. And that is where we are in 2010.

1 year ago, ESPN started televising the English Premiership. This, to my knowledge, is the first time Fox had any competition for the EPL. ESPN has been handling the Champions League for quite a while, but it was almost only there because of ESPN Deportes winning the rights for the Spanish Audience. ESPN seemed to not want to even air the matches instead of their normal daytime programming for many years. They had no idea what they had.

But, let's credit ESPN for furthering the game a level that has been that proverbial tipping point for English Soccer in the USA. High Definition, brother.

Last August, when Chelsea played Hull City in HD on ESPN2, those of us who have followed this league for years almost burst into tears. It was magical. And it showed us the future.

Quickly, Fox saw that ESPN would get numbers for any match in HD. Fox broadcasts in Standard Definition looked horrendous. Guys like me would patiently wait for the rare moments when our team would be scheduled for an HD match. We have come so far, but to have 1 game a weekend in HD showed us how far we could go with a little burst of technology.

Then, Fox responded. Fox Soccer and its little brother Fox Soccer Plus have now entered HD since last spring, and Directv will flip the switch for both on August 11 according to reports. I assume this means many, many more games of EPL action in HD. I don't want to assume it will be all, but I do believe it will be plenty.

That is so awesome I am dancing as I type this.

None of this happens without a market. If they weren't doing numbers, they wouldn't be bidding against eachother and working to out-perform eachother with technology. But, because of this, days of spending $350 for SD broadcasts are years ago. Now, HD for free is here. And that is why it is time for you to get onboard.

And now, this week's emails:

Bob,

I actually have a few questions:

1. What channels are a must have and what channels would be nice to watch the EPL on DirectTV?
2. What are some good websites that you visit on a regular basis on the EPL?
3. How about some people to follow on Twitter?
4. Only slightly related - Do you follow only the EPL or do you follow other leagues as well? I am thinking of trying to do the EPL and the Champions league and basically ignore the others except when Real Madrid plays Barca

Cheers,

Joseph Cross


This is a good place to start. Thanks, Joseph.

My Answers:

1. ESPN2, Fox Soccer Channel are musts. Fox Soccer Plus is nice to have. If you are like me (I hope that you are not) and need to watch EVERY match of your team, then you need all 3. But, if you plan on casual viewing, then you can survive on the first 2. I assume Fox Soccer Plus is the one that will hit you in the wallet, about $12-$15 a month for that one on Directv I seem to recall.

2. Websites: ESPN Soccernet is the best for the US Soccer fan. I read a few UK papers, with the Guardian being the one I find to be my cup of tea. Stateside, I enjoy EPL Talk as a good US-based EPL site.

3. Twitter: @grantwahl @epltalk @dtguardian @peterssoccer that should get you started.

4. I follow the EPL and the Champions League. There is only so much time in the day. I know that Italy and Spain have good football, but I have to choose where my time goes (especially when we have US Sports to care about!). So, yes, when Barca and Real hook up, I will try to get to it, but beyond that, it has to be Champions League for me to venture out of England.

I am a gooner and have been helped by blogs. I would suggest newbie's search out some blogs of the team you are rooting for. This helps gather daily perspective and feel the passion that those across the pond have for their team.

Chris Swindell


I agree, Chris. By the way, Chris said he is a Gooner. That means he follows Arsenal. If he said Scouser, that means Liverpool. Magpie is Newcastle. Toffee is Everton. And so on. Look, you are going to be confused. Teams don't have official nicknames. They are not the Lions or the Bears. But they have unofficial nicknames. Some are insults and some are compliments. But, do not try to absorb that all in Year 1. You will go mad.

And I do agree that if you seek out your club's blogosphere, this is the proper play. Google it. And weed through until you find one worth a darn. They are out there.

Hey Bob,

So, I jumped on the EPL bandwagon about 2 years ago, and now I am strongly committed. Of course, I am a follower of the Toffees, so we are pretty much mortal enemies. But for purposes of picking your brain, I'll let that slide for now. I must admit though, that I am woefully short on my knowledge of the rest of the 1st division. I mean, I know all the World Cup stars (Rooney, Fabregas, Tevez, Torres) and the top of the table. But what I'd really like to know about are the rivalries. Who are the, for lack of a better analogy, the Yankees-Red Sox of the EPL? Who are the Yankees-Rays (big market vs. small market upstart)? Who are the White Sox-Cubs? Who are the Rangers-Astros? My buddy has talked me into having Arsenal as a 2nd team (just to have someone in the Champions League to root for). Who are they rivals with? And if you feel I am a candidate for sports bullying, bring it on.

Thanks,
Jeff


Jeff, I don't mind the Toffees. They are lovable Everton. Never a threat to win it all, but certainly a tough match at their place. In the EPL there are rivalries everywhere. But, most is based on geography or table position. For instance, the traditional "Big 4" all are mortal rivals with eachother, but that is competition-driven more than anything.

But for Geography, we have some amazing derbies. And yes, they call them a derby, not a rivalry game or whatever we call it. Manchester United/Manchester City. Everton/Liverpool, Tottenham/Chelsea, Tottenham/Arsenal, Arsenal/West Ham, Middlesboro/Newcastle, Portsmouth/Southampton, and several others are based on proximity. Of course, many of these are fully dependent on being in the same level (and if you don't understand relegation and promotion, don't worry about it yet, but know it is about the coolest thing in the world).

And, I don't understand this "2nd team" to root for idea of yours. But, if that is how you roll, that sounds good.

What up football Bob!

I’m in on soccer for a long time, I think. This last world cup is the first time I really actually watched soccer, and I loved it.

The tension and release of the attack and the defense is addicting. The artistry of quick passes and good motion is another draw for me, as well.

I’ve been watching replays of the EPL matches last season, and I get that same feel watching my chosen team, Arsenal, and Fabregas. I saw some of that in a Liverpool match I watched the other day, as well. Torres was a different player in that match compared to his injured WC appearance.

The Questions:

- Where to do find your matches? TV? Internet?
I am on dish network, and most replay matches have been on FSC. I have the option to get the Fox Soccer Plus channel if that’s what it takes also.

- I’ve been reading all the transfers that Man. City has been stockpiling. Without knowing a lot about the level of talent in the top teams, does this Yankees approach payoff quickly in soccer, or is there a chemistry development period?

LOVE LOVE LOVE the 45 minute commercial free halves.

Cheers

Jeremy


I know the internet has plenty of backdoor feeds for you (that you can find on your own lest they hunt me down and shut me up. But, TV is the only way. See above for my thoughts, but I am not sure DIsh Network is totally down with the HD bit. So, you will have to research.

As for Man City's new view of buying up all of the talent in the world - well, it worked for Chelsea. When I started watching the EPL 10 seasons ago, Chelsea and Everton and Tottenham were all in the Top 10, but not in the Top 5. The Top 5 back then year in and year out were Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Leeds. Chelsea was bought by a Russian Billionaire who wanted to buy the best players in the world. It has worked, and now Chelsea can make the case of being the best in England and a Top 5 club in the world. Leeds United was promoted from the 3rd level of English Soccer to the 2nd level last spring. They are trying to get back to the Premiership sometimes soon after falling on horrendous times. Newcastle was promoted back to the Prem last May after being relegated the year before. Nothing lasts forever (except Sir Alex).

Can Man City buy their way to the top? Yes. It is not easy, and it is not always as fast as they would like, but if you continuously money-whip the world's best players to your club, eventually you get it right. And the Arab Billionaire who bought them seems to want to do that.


Sports Sturm - I have dabbled in the EPL for a couple of years now, but never put any real time or energy into it. This year though, I'm all in. My problem is probably a problem most EPL newbies have; what team should I follow? My concern is I do not want to pick one of the Big 4 (obviously Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea, or Arsenal) because I don't want to come across as a frontrunner. But my biggest problem is the only way for me to truly get into the EPL is to have a team that is consistently on tv. This rules out US favorites Fulham and Everton. So who do I pick? I also don't really want to go with someone like Man City since they seem to be a team like the Mets; little brother to Man U but with retardedly deep pockets. Do you think a team like Tottenham will be ok even though they came in 4th this past year?

Sorry for the long email but I really do want to do this thing right.

Zach Ballenger


This is the type of email I get plenty of. Who should I follow?

Now, I know I preach against front-running on all fronts. But, I also want you to enjoy this and if you choose a minnow, you will not enjoy your viewing. So, the question is, do you have to stomach to follow a team with no chance of winning the league?

Group 1: (3) Teams with a great chance to win the league: Chelsea and Manchester United, with Arsenal right behind.
Group 2: (1) Teams with a medium or small chance to win the league: Manchester City
Group 3: (1) Teams with a sliver's chance to win the league if Tom Hicks sells before Labor Day: Liverpool

Group 4: (7) Teams with no chance to win the league but still better than many and fun to follow because of tradition and fan base: Everton, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Fulham, West Ham, Newcastle, and maybe Blackburn

Group 5: (8) Teams with no chance to win and a fairly ordinary fan base but you will get to enjoy a relegation battle up close: West Brom, Stoke City, Blackpool, Birmingham, Bolton, Sunderland, Wigan, and Wolves

Anyone of the Top 3 groups will have 95%+ of their games televised.
Anyone in Group 4 will have games televised when they play anyone else in the Top 4 groups, and at least 50% of games against Group 5.
Anyone in Group 5 will have a dicey TV schedule that will go well with their dicey performance.

Basically, Do Not jump on Chelsea or United's wagon. They are 1st or 2nd every year, and it will say a bit about your character if you cheer for them. Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers, Walmart, Big Oil, and American Idol. Just don't do it.

I also would not recommend you dive into bed with Tom Hicks (Note: I was there before him, and I will be there after him. Don't you dare accuse me of jumping on LFC because Tom Hicks bought them. How dare you!). However, it appears Liverpool is close to a sale to some dude from China who is really rich. Isn't that something you might be interested in?

Man City is like the Mets. That is so perfect.

Arsenal is everyone's popular choice. I must admit, if I had to find a team, I might end up there, too. They are beautiful. They play well. They have a system with a coach who is a genius and are like the San Antonio Spurs with the way they do their business. They play in London and they have a cannon on their logo. How much cooler does it get?

Group 4 has many interesting choices. If you don't want to be cliche, grab someone there. In future mailbags, I promise to give you something on all of them.

And I would stay away from Group 5. Like I said, I want you to enjoy this.

Ok, let's stop here. I will do one of these every week (or maybe every few weeks - let's see how this goes) until you all lose interest.

See you next time.

17 comments:

Lefty said...

Go Hammers!

Mark said...

Good read, Sturm. Even though my Hull City lads were relegated, I'm looking forward to the new season.

Xanthippas said...

Bob, this is a fantastic post. Thanks for going to so much trouble to get information and answers that are otherwise hard for soccer newbies to find, right out there for anybody who's interested to read. I have to admit that thanks to you (and Craig Miller) I'm on board with the EPL this year as well. I've been a soccer fan since I was a kid, so I don't need any help getting into soccer (I've been watching atrocious MLS soccer and the ever-frustrating FC Dallas/Dallas Burn for 15 years, so I'm pretty much a die-hard.) I've never gotten into EPL because I've just never gotten behind "picking" a team basically a random and devoting myself to them; for me real love of a team has to be an accident of geography and birth. But my soccer friends (almost all of whom are Euro-soccer snobs) have been watching EPL forever, and I've always felt like I'm missing out on something by limiting myself to the World Cup and MLS. So I guess in some sense I am a newbie, not to soccer but to the EPL, and so I really appreciate the practical tips you provide here. For what it's worth my team of choice is Arsenal. That happens to be because the team I played for in high school rec soccer was named Arsenal (after the legendary club) but that's all the emotional investment I need.

Thanks again, and I look forward to more of your thoughts on the subject.

(Oh and I think you're right: soccer is clearly on the upswing in this country, with or without the help of sports radio blowhards.)

KD said...

Great stuff, Bob. Not to start an EPL vs. La Liga debate (the European sports radio equivalent to "Pete Rose, Hall of Fame, how do YOU weigh in?"), but don't be so quick to dismiss the greatness of Spain's La Liga, where the beautiful game is played with its greatest current style and flair. GOL TV (HD is coming, maybe, sometime this year) is a must, available in one of the DirecTV sports add-on packages. And that gives you the best from Spain, Germany's Bundasliga, a touch of Italy's Cup tourney and all manner of Brazilian, Argentinian and other South American coverage that is indeed too much to follow. But Gol TV's La Liga coverage gives you the greatness of Ray Hudson, hands-down the most entertaining and outrageous commentator working today. Just hearing his jaw-dropping, creative and insanely over-the-top reactions to magic moments and players has been enough to even get my wife to stop down to catch 20 min here or there on a Saturday-Sunday broadcast. Ray Hudson, Newcastle ex. There are web sites dedicated to his quotes (http://mustreadsoccer.com/spoken-word-of-ray-hudson/), (http://rayhudson.wordpress.com/), etc. You want to accelerate any newbie's enjoyment of the world's game, just listen to Ray call a Barcelona match. (PS -- And if they keep me around for Ticket Sports Saturday-Sunday gigs, I'll do my damnedest to work in some European football scores/updates for the weekend P1s between the college football). - Ken Daley

Blue Moon said...

I am a Man City supporter -- I would say Man City are like a cross between the pre-2004 Red Sox and the 62-68 Mets. Cursed, overshadowed by a big brother, often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

City have such an absurd recent history. I started supporting them in the early 90's -- they got relegated to the third tier in the late 90's, got promoted to the second tier in 99 in a match that they were losing by two with less than 10 minutes left and the fans started to leave... Made it back to top tier in the early 00's, only to get relegated again... Regrouped, bought by a Thai politician indicted for corruption, and now are the richest club in the world owned by Abu Dhabi oilmen... City have more drama than anyother team in the Premiership.

Marlon said...

So excited about my Gooners if we can get one more defender (I'm hearing Mertesacker or Jagielka). Finally we would have depth on the backline. Gibbs looks like a good apprentice for Clicy, if we go with a 4-2-3-1 with Clichy-Vermaelen-Jagielka(?)-Sagna, Diaby and Song, Arshavin-Cesc-Walcott and Chamakh upfront with V. Persie, Bendtner, Wilshere et al of the bench. Powerful looking squad. I also recommend reading Jonathan Wilson on CNNSI. He really breaks the Prem. Zonalmarking.net once the games get going is a great website for analysis of the how the games are actually being played.

Phil K. said...

Two things:

1. www.101greatgoals.com is the premiere fan-created site for news and goal highlights anywhere in the world. Whomever is behind this site is thorough and tireless. It's updated constantly. I have no idea how this person has time to go through all the newspapers (English and others) and scan all of those stories. It's fun, put-together and worth your time to add and view in your news feed readers.

2. If you're new to EPL and other Euro leagues, and you start to follow a team closely, your American brain may explode over "trade/sell" talk. Many teams' ownerships engage in player tampering (players in contracts) with other teams. Often referred to internationally as "tapping up." This will drive you insane. Stories piled upon stories with more rumors than you can possibly keep up with. So many of the papers will just run with completely un-true and un-substantiated story-lines that it's absurd. If there's one thing that I've learned in the last couple of years, it's that a deal isn't done until you actually actually see that player listed on the other team's roster. For the most recent examples, see Torres/Liverpool and Fabregas/Arsenal/Barca threads. And, if it's one of your favorite players on your team that's being tapped by another, prepare for insanity.

Mike said...

Bob,
Please don't steer these people wrong. Foxsoccer.tv (15$/ month) shows every game on line in the US. If the game was on FSC then it can be watched as of midnight that night. As for matched shown on FSC+ they can be viewed live. Also you can watch any match on demand after it has aired. Obviously this is not in HD but it is great for someone who travels a lot or will miss matches and want to watch them later.

* note any match shown on espn will not be available on foxsoccer.tv, also you won't be able to see it on espn3.com as fox has exclusive rights to the online matches.

Spencer said...

Bob, awesome stuff. FYI, Dish Network began carrying Fox Soccer Channel in HD last year.

Bookmark this link to keep up with the EPL's TV/Internet schedule for U.S. viewers:

http://www.epltalk.com/premier-league-tv-schedule

Clay said...

bigsoccer.com has a huge U.S. fan base for all of soccer, but the EPL forums are very active. They even have topics on where to see the games on TV in the U.S. and which local bars/pubs fans are going to.

Bob, you could write a bit about why HISTORY is so important with these teams.

And for anyone who chooses Arsenal - our hated rivals are Tottenham. They are known as 'The Scum'.

fanchants.com is also a great website to find the fan cheers for each team. Many are not safe for work!

Clay said...

Oh, one more thing...you can play fantasy EPL at http://fantasy.premierleague.com/

yocoolz said...

Thanks, Bob, for this post. I've never understood the paranoia football fans sometimes feel about soccer. I love both sports and love them more than sports featuring individuals. One comment on MLS: Thanks to the EPL, I actually enjoy MLS more than I used to. Like minor league baseball or hockey, knowledge of the game at its highest level makes the lesser experience more enjoyable.

Mike said...

Bob, I have lived in Korea for the few past years and I have seen the Man U. games in HD and they are awesome. I was able also to see all of the WC games in HD also and Donavan's goal in HD made me very happy.

I am glad that you're getting to see EPL in HD

Jordan said...

Thank you so much, fearless leader.
I was determined to pick my team based on geography of some sort. I committed to myself that I would take the closest team and quietly hoped for one of the top 3 "groups". My grandmother is from London, so I looked up her town and the closest team-Arsenal- Highbury, is 3.5 miles from where she grew up. Score!

Do you think LeBron will add Chelsea to his favorite front running teams?

Phil K. said...

One more link:

www.livesoccertv.com

any team, any place, any channel. You can find out where it's playing here.

Indispensable resource.

Clay said...

Thanks Phil, that's a great link!

and Jordan, go to bigsoccer.com, look up the EPL forum and then the Arsenal forum. You'll find a TON of information on your new team. Welcome aboard!

onlinegooner.com is a great Arsenal forum as well, more focused on just the club and less on seeing it from a U.S. point of view.

If you get a chance to go to a game you won't regret it.

hellonearth said...

Bob is there a chance that Tom Hicks heard you talking about Liverpool on the air and then looked into buying them? That would make you partly to blame for there current ownership issues.