17.01.2017 – Since the nomination of the United States as hosts of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the country’s attachment to football (soccer), and the US football market, have progressed significantly, with thousands of hours of live football programming being broadcasted in the country’s networks yearly. Although, TV viewing figures are still well below those of the North American Major Leagues, i.e. the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB), average viewing figures of Premier League games nowadays often exceed those of regular season National Hockey League (NHL) games in the country.
Despite this dynamic development, however, little is known about the factors driving US consumers to watch (predominantly) international football games on TV. In a recently finished research project, Georgios Nalbantis and Tim Pawlowski (both University of Tübingen) looked at this topic for the first time. By employing an innovative research design based on repeated surveys, the authors focus on the US demand for six of the most popular and marketable football competitions worldwide – i.e. the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga, the French Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League – as well as the North American Major League Soccer (MLS).
A US-wide representative sample of more than 6,500 people was used to gather the extensive data. A screen-out question at the beginning of the surveys enabled the sports economists to focus on individuals, who indicated at least a basic interest in football. These were almost 50 percent in both survey rounds – a share far higher than had been expected for the US market, which is dominated by the three major sports.
The survey participants were asked, amongst others, about their favorite football competitions. Among the seven competitions, the greatest interest was indicated for the English Premier League, followed by the UEFA Champions League, the American MLS and the Spanish La Liga. According to this ranking, the German Bundesliga is in position five ahead of the Italian Serie A and the French Ligue 1. These relative differences between the competitions are fairly similar to the relative differences with regard to reported TV audience figures.
The highest share of people interested in European football clubs were found in the states of California and New York. Roughly 3.5 percent of the football interested individuals mentioned Bayern Munich as their favorite club. This means that Bayern Munich is one of the top 10 most popular European and North American football teams in the USA; the list is headed by England’s Manchester United, followed by Spain’s FC Barcelona.
The focus of the study was put on exploring factors, which affect the demand for international football telecasts. The analysis reveals, that US residents living in (or close to) an MLS city also have a higher probability to watch international football telecasts. In addition, the young generation is more likely to watch football. Moreover, Hispanophone individuals are a highly relevant target group for broadcasting networks, leagues and clubs. In this regard, it is indicative that Bayer Leverkusen’s games featuring the Mexican star Javier Hernández Balcázar (aka Chicharito) were particularly popular during the last season (2015-2016). Moreover, the study confirms that perceived competitive balance within a league as well as championship uncertainty matters for US fans, highlighting the relevance of ‘Cinderella Stories’ which recently happened for instance in the MLS and the Premier League when clubs like Portland Timbers (MLS) and Leicester FC (Premier League) became champions against all odds.
The study benefited from a João Havelange Research Scholarship with which FIFA supports independent research projects on football. The study’s findings are now being published as a book.
Nalbantis, G. & Pawlowski, T. (2017). The Demand for International Football Telecasts in the United States (Palgrave Pivots in Sports Economics Issue 1, edited by W. Andreff & A. Zimbalist). Houndmills (UK): Palgrave.