COMMENTARY | Back in 1999, TNN (now Spike TV) gave pro wrestling company Extreme Championship Wrestling its first ever national television program. The hope of those running ECW was that the weekly show would help expand the company's brand, so much so that the promotion would one day be able to compete with the country's top-two pro wrestling organizations; World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling (bought by the WWF in 2001). What it proved to be, however, was a test run and not much more for TNN. The station went on to give the WWF a national TV deal in the fall of 2000 before cutting ties with ECW, and the smaller organization folded the following winter.
We may be on the verge of a soccer-related version of a similar tale.
Major League Soccer and NBC Sports officially became a team at the start of the 2012 MLS regular season. The idea, according to multiple individuals I spoke with at the time, was that the NBC Sports Network, known as "Versus" until it was re-branded on January 1, 2012, would be somewhat of the anti-sports sports network, one that catered to leagues often perceived to be ignored by US TV sports giant ESPN. Both the National Hockey League and MLS were set to be the stars of the new station. It was a deal that meant only good things for everybody involved.
That, unfortunately, isn't the case for MLS as the league approaches the midway point of its three-year deal with NBC. Soccer America reported back on May 7 that MLS matches airing on NBCSN this season have seen a 22-percent decrease in viewers from 2012. That number, 93k per match, looks even smaller when compared with the 392,000 average number of viewers who tuned in to watch NHL regular season games airing on NBC Sports this year.
MLS got some more bad news regarding TV ratings on Wednesday. John Ourand of Sports Business Daily reported via Twitter that the Chicago Fire vs. Philadelphia Union match that aired on NBCSN on May 11 attracted just 51,000 viewers. That match kicked off before the FA Cup Final, which was airing live on FOX in many significant markets, had completed. Ourand also reported that 55,000 viewers tuned into FOX Soccer to watch the replay of the FA Cup Final on that same day.
Despite the lack of viewers, fans and critics have widely praised NBC's coverage of MLS, coverage that routinely includes pregame and postgame shows. Such stellar coverage, not to mention a mammoth amount of money, helped NBC land exclusive US TV rights for the English Premier League beginning next August. That on its own was never any real threat to MLS. The latest that any weekend EPL match ends is around 2:30 pm ET, giving those in charge of North America's top-flight league more than enough available hours to schedule accordingly.
Things got a little dodgy for MLS in April, however, when NBC announced that "over 600 hours of original and weekly (EPL) studio programming" will air on NBCSN during the 2013-14 season. This will include Match of the Day and Match of the Day 2, a re-airing of what is deemed to be that week's top match, Barclays Premier League World, Barclays Premier League Preview Show and Barclays Premier League Review Show. No such MLS-related programs are currently featured on NBC Sports outside of the occasional MLS 36.
"In short," one US TV expert told me during a brief conversation that we had a couple of weeks back, "NBC doesn't at all need MLS come this August. They'll ride it out until the end of the current deal, but I can't see any reason why NBC would re-up with the league (after the 2014 MLS season ends)."
"A live sporting event is more difficult and more expensive to produce than is an in-studio program. If done properly, MOTD and MOTD2 should be able to equal the amount of viewers MLS games airing on NBCSN are attracting." I was also reminded that MLS having a summer schedule won't help their cause in this matter. The Premier League season overlaps with roughly six months of the MLS season (MLS playoffs included). Add another few weeks at least for NHL playoff games that also air on NBC Sports, and you're looking at the station really only "missing" MLS during June, July and the first half of August.
Assuming that MLS and NBC do part ways following the 2014 season, the league may not have a plethora of options moving forward. One company insider told me last week that MLS returning to FOX seems "rather unlikely." For starters, FOX Soccer and FOX Soccer Plus are about to be replaced by national sports station FOX Sports 1 (a FOX Sports 2 may also be unveiled sometime down the road). "The new FOX Sports 1 will have programming that would conflict with an entire MLS season," I was told. Live Major League Baseball games as well as live college basketball and college football games will be featured on that station. FS1 will also show NASCAR and Ultimate Fighting Championship events.
"You also have to remember that the 'MLS on FOX' experiment was one that didn't work out all that well the first time around," the FOX person stated. FOX Soccer was the main cable home for MLS matches up until the end of the 2011 season. FOX also already has the US TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups, meaning that the company would have no extra incentive to bid high in order to complete any MLS deal.
ESPN has the resources and channels to, in theory, give MLS an NBCSN-esque deal. This is especially true on summer Saturdays when European soccer leagues such as the EPL are on break, and MLB games are airing on FOX (and FOX Sports 1 starting in 2014). The problem with this notion is that the ESPN family of networks are all college football all the time on Saturdays beginning in September. Relegating league matches to only NFL Sundays once the NCAA season kicks off would be TV suicide for MLS.
"For MLS on US TV, all roads lead to beIN Sport." It's the message I've repeatedly been told since the EPL on NBC schedule was released. The two affiliates of Al Jazeera Media Networks, beIN Sport and beIN Sport en Español, certainly wouldn't have to worry about losing out on the bid for MLS TV rights to the likes of GolTV, a channel that isn't even available in some large markets (I live outside of NYC and cannot subscribe to GolTV in HD via my television provider). Those two channels could also air different MLS games at the same time on league weekends. This was a frequent practice on the beIN stations during the 2012-13 La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1 campaigns.
Another plus is that the beIN stations do not, minus some international friendlies or World Cup qualifiers, air ratings-drawing prime time shows on a nightly basis. All live European matches that are shown on the channels are completed before 7 p.m. ET. These gaps in programming leave plenty of room for MLS games and even, if beIN wanted them, weekly MLS-only highlight and preview shows.
MLS moving to beIN may be a cause for concern for some US fans, as the stations are currently only available on a subscription basis (i.e. in an "Ultimate HD" or "Sports Pass/Pack" package). Those in charge at beIN have done well in reaching out to providers from all around the country, and Verizon Fios customers finally obtained access to both channels this spring. One must also remember that beIN has a little under two years from the posting of this piece to get into the position that FOX Soccer currently sits; minus the impending doom, of course.
Plenty can happen between May 2013 and the time when serious negotiations over MLS US TV rights take place. Perhaps NBC will buck the trend, merging the EPL and MLS into the greatest soccer duo in the world today before signing a long-term extension with the US league. What we do know is that we'll get a first look at how NBC Sports handles the matter this coming August.
Until then, what can be done to get a MLS MOTD on NBC?
Zac has been covering Tottenham Hotspur, Major League Soccer, New York Red Bulls, the USMNT and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.
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