It's largely been good news regarding Major League Soccer television ratings in 2012. That wasn't the case at the start of the current week, and there are lessons to be learned from what occurred on Saturday.
The Sports Media Watch website reported on Monday that Saturday's Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders MLS match that was shown on NBC drew in an overnight rating of 0.4. That number, according to the SMW story, was good for the lowest overnight rating for any live sporting event that aired on network television over the weekend. This is obviously not good news for the whole "MLS on NBC" experiment, a fact that's been pointed out by multiple individuals over the past couple of days. Paul Kennedy of Soccer America, for example, called the match a TV "flop" in a piece that was published on Tuesday.
There's a saying in sports that you learn more by losing than you do from winning. On that principle, both MLS and NBC can and should take steps to ensure that such a poor rating for a league match showing on network television is avoided in the future. After all, the point of these games is to attract new fans to the league, viewers who will ideally return to watch matches that air on both NBC and NBC Sports.
MLS on NBC rating: What we learned I
My immediate thought as coverage of the game kicked off on NBC was simple: Only diehard fans of Seattle, Portland or MLS, in general, are watching this match live right now. Three college football teams that draw huge audiences, Penn State, Alabama and Michigan, all kicked off at 3:30 pm ET, right as Portland vs. Seattle was set to start. Truth be told, I, a Penn State alum, watched PSU on TV and MLS via computer.
There are obviously many things that go into choosing a time to air a game. With that said, MLS competing with Penn State, Alabama and Michigan was always set to be a recipe for disaster. If NBC is set on airing MLS matches during the fall, a college football schedule must first be thoroughly reviewed in order to select the most ideal time to air the match.
MLS on NBC rating: What we learned II
Tim Hall from First Touch Magazine brought up a good point about this subject while appearing on this week's edition of the From the Factory Floor podcast: Perhaps NBC should have first aired MLS matches earlier in 2012 and before the start of college and NFL seasons. I've pointed out in other MLS on TV pieces that American television viewers are creatures of habit. They know, for example, that college football will be on ABC, CBS and ESPN at 3:30 pm ET because that's the way it's been since the day before forever.
There's no history of MLS matches being shown on NBC, though, and chances are that you probably didn't know that the station was airing a game on Saturday unless you are an avid fan who routinely watches league contests on NBC Sports and the ESPN family of networks. I'm not asking or even hoping for weekly MLS matches to air on "Big Daddy NBC" on a weekly basis starting next March. It might, however, not be a bad idea to put at least one or two games on the channel during the spring and/or summer months.
MLS on NBC rating: What we learned III
I hate to be "that guy," but I'm going to be because it needs to be said. Portland and Seattle have passionate fan bases who create incredible scenes that play out nicely on TV. That doesn't change the fact that no casual viewer outside of those two areas know or care about the likes of Fredy Montero or Jack Jewsbury. I said it back in the winter when I first learned about MLS games airing on NBC, and I'll say it again here:
The first league match on NBC should have been LA Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls.
Stars attract eyes, and the MLS on NBC era should have kicked off with a match that featured Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Rafa Marquez, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. I understand that those two sides can't and shouldn't be featured each time a league contest is shown on NBC. This past Saturday was a chance for the league to announce its return to network television in a big way and with a big match. Portland vs. Seattle may be a massive game for fans of those clubs, but a large majority of the country had little interest in seeing a very good Western Conference team take on an opponent that has flirted with the last place spot in the league table throughout 2012. That's not just opinion. It's a statement that was proven in the rating.