It's been the dirty little secret of U.S. soccer for a while now: America's team might actually not even be American.
As the Hispanic population rapidly expands in the United States, the market for the Mexican national team continues to grow with it. In 2012, the most-watched men's international soccer match on American television didn't involve the U.S. national team, but, instead, it was a Mexico - Colombia friendly on Univision that drew 4.3 million viewers.
Of the 16 friendlies El Tri played in 2011 and 2012, 11 were in the United States, compared to just three in Mexico. A shade over 11,000 showed up for the USA's friendly against Canada in Houston Tuesday. More than 43,000 turned up to watch Mexico play Denmark in Phoenix the next night.
So it should come as little surprise that ESPN made a historic commitment to the Mexican national team Wednesday, announcing it would broadcast every El Tri home game in English leading up to World Cup 2014.
The agreement is the first-ever English language broadcast deal for the Mexican national team.
“The Hispanic audience has grown dramatically over the last couple of decades and will continue to do so,” ESPN senior vice president for programming Scott Guglielmino told Goal.com. “And so we thought it was the right time to make it happen.”
The timing was indeed crucial. Mexico begins Hexagonal play next week when it hosts Jamaica in a game which will now air on ESPN. The network will show a total of 20 El Tri friendlies and World Cup qualifiers leading up to the main event in Brazil next year. It also holds the rights to this summer's Confederations Cup, which will feature Mexico along with several of the world's top teams.
Mexico already had a home on American television with Univision, but English coverage of the team was sorely lacking. It's a demographic that is ripe for the taking.
According to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau study, approximately 34.5 million people five years and older in the United States spoke Spanish as their primary language at home. Of that group, more than 24 million spoke English "very well," or “well” based on a self-assessment question.
It is that rather sizable demographic that ESPN has firmly in its sights.
Of course, It isn't just Hispanics that ESPN is targeting with the deal. Mexico is clearly a soccer nation on the rise, and the network has high hopes that American soccer fans of all backgrounds will tune in to watch Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre's squad.
“From a corporate perspective, our business is to serve sports fans,” Guglielmino said. “There's been a growth of soccer and a growth of the Mexican team in terms of their style of play and the quality of play.”
For ESPN, the deal makes sense and will likely be very lucrative, but outside the “corporate perspective” lies an entirely different set of interests. Namely, those belonging to the team which has seen its territory unceremoniously tread upon.
ESPN's job is to make money; it is under no obligation to help the U.S national team. But could this deal actually damage the long-term international prospects of its own country's soccer team?
Will increased exposure of the (at least for now) superior Mexican team hurt the popularity of the U.S. national team? Will Mexico ratings blow USA ratings out of the water, and, if so, what will the implications be? Will little American boys and little American girls even, oh god, oh Jesus, become Mexico fans?
These questions are currently without answers, but suffice it to say, for the Stars and Stripes, it's hardly an ideal situation. Still, ESPN insists the Mexico deal will have zero impact on its USA coverage.
“From a programing perspective, we're not throttling back at all on the U.S. team,” Guglielmino said. “This is additional, this is not instead of. I think that's an important point to make clear.”
ESPN will broadcast every U.S. home Hexagonal game, just the same as it will for Mexico. For road Hex matches, U.S. fans will likely be better off with each game on beIN Sport, in all its limited-availability glory, than Mexico fans, who will have few options for their four non-USA away matches.
Still, if Mexico's home matches produce good numbers, it would likely only be a matter of time before ESPN or some other network makes a play for El Tri's away matches.
Wednesday night's friendly with Denmark was ESPN's first Mexico broadcast, and it gave a small window into the network's vision for its newest property.
“I think knowledge is the obvious example,” Guglielmino said when asked what the difference between a U.S. and Mexico broadcast will be. Fernando Palomo, who hosts a Spanish-language soccer show on ESPN Deportes was on play-by-play. Long-time MLSer Alejandro Moreno provided color and Bernardo Osuna was the sideline reporter.
“Going forward, we are absolutely looking to witness a telecast that very much reflects the interest of the U.S. Hispanic audience,” Guglielmino said. “It will not look exactly like a U.S. national team match.”
We'll find out more when the network gives the Feb. 6 match against Jamaica a two-and-a-half hour window, rather than the two hours given to the Denmark match. One thing is for sure, though: We've entered a brave new world of soccer programing in the United States.
Follow SETH VERTELNEY on Twitteror shoot him an email
- Sports & Recreation