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2013 MLS Schedule Made for Increase in Attendance and TV Viewers

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2012 was a banner year for Major League Soccer in many ways. More fans watched MLS contests in person than ever before, the league got itself a real TV home for the first time, and multiple contests were featured on national television via NBC. Unlike in previous winters when fans had to wait until after the Super Bowl to see a full list of fixtures, MLS released the entire 2013 regular season schedule this past Wednesday. After giving the full schedule a hard look, all indications are that the trend of onward and upward will continue for MLS starting this spring.

Perhaps the most important tidbit included in the league's official schedule release is that more than 90 percent of regular season matches will take place on weekends or holidays. Scheduling games to occur when the majority of your customers are off work and looking to entertain themselves and their families is a brilliant, not to mention an obvious, move made by those within the MLS front office. The New York Red Bulls inadvertently proved this to be true during the 2012 campaign when they hosted a plethora of afternoon contests that failed to draw in noteworthy crowds. A reported 10,286, a number that most analysts would say was inflated by a few thousand, fans made the trek to Red Bull Arena when New York hosted Sporting KC on a Wednesday evening in mid-September. That game was guaranteed to have a major impact on the playoff race, and it likely would have drawn in close to, if not over, 20,000 fans had it taken place on a Saturday.

MLS also deserves a pat on the back for stealing a concept used by the NCAA and the NFL; "Rivalry Week." Not all individuals posting in the comments section of the MLS article were keen on this concept. One supporter called the idea "cheesy." Another stated that the league "doesn't seem to to support the idea of things happening organically."

What these people fail to realize is that a rivalry week is not just about teams facing off against familiar opponents. It's a marketing tool, one that has proven to be very effective in other leagues in this country. Casual sports fans who don't watch college sports every weekend see and hear Rivalry Week advertisements and they get visions of Alabama vs. Auburn, Michigan vs. Ohio State, North Carolina vs. Duke and Notre Dame vs. USC.

It would be easy to argue that college football is the most popular sport in the United States. The two most-watched programs in cable history were BCS Championship Games. What's the biggest weekend of the season for that sport year in and year out? Those who guessed "Rivalry Week" would be correct.

Granted, MLS has a ways to go in pushing the league's rivalries to the masses. What better way to do so than to feature such games on national television? MLS intends on doing just that throughout the 2013 campaign, and fans won't have to wait long for those contests to arrive. Three marquee matchups, New York Red Bulls vs. DC United (NBC), Sporting KC vs. Chicago Fire (NBC Sports Network) and Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers (NBC Sports Network), will be featured on national television on March 16. Over 40,000 fans will be in attendance when Seattle hosts Portland in that early-season clash, and those supporters will create the type of "I have to check this out" atmosphere that makes a channel surfer stop on NBCSN.

As with many things in this black-and-white world in which we live, the 2013 MLS schedule isn't all sunshine and puppies. The biggest negative that immediately stuck out to me was how the regular season closes out on national TV. DC United vs. Houston Dynamo (NBC), New York vs. Chicago Fire (UniMas) and Seattle Sounders vs. LA Galaxy (ESPN) will all be featured on October 27. While each of those contests could have playoff implications, none of them scream "can't miss" to those outside of the MLS community.

MLS needs to steal from the NFL when it comes to scheduling the final fixtures of the season. Every Week 17 of every NFL season showcases divisional rivals facing off against one another. Games like Browns at Steelers, Giants at Eagles, Packers at Vikings and Cowboys at Redskins which involve fan bases and franchises that genuinely don't like each other also routinely determine playoff spots. The NFC East title was won in the final game of the 2012 regular season when Washington defeated Dallas, and that also happened to be the most-watched TV program of the fall.

There are, of course, numerous things that will determine the success of the 2013 MLS season that cannot be determined merely by looking at a schedule. The in-game and at-home experiences created by clubs and by television networks will again be huge in turning first-time viewers into repeat customers. All things considered, however, things look bright for a league that continues to grow at a slow and steady rate.

At least MLS fans don't have to worry about a lockout anytime soon.

For more: RBNY midweek afternoon experiment a bust, MLS sets attendance records for 2012

Zac is a lifelong soccer fanatic, a diehard Red Bulls fan and one of the only American A-League fans you'll meet. He has been covering Major League Soccer, RBNY and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.

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