COMMENTARY | It's been a little over two years since the now deceased United States television station FOX Soccer Channel came up with a new way to present Major League Soccer games, and neither the league nor this country's new home for MLS contests on TV have figured out the most important part of airing live sports contests.
NBC Sports deserves credit for how the station has showcased MLS games since March 2012. Pregame and postgame shows take place live and at arenas rather than inside a studio. The high definition feeds on NBC are of a quality never seen on FSC. Commentary crews for MLS on NBC contests have, for the most part, been stellar.
Yes, despite the fact that MLS on cable television has never before looked better and also that the league has never before been treated as if it was such a big deal, TV ratings are down from a year ago. They are down for games showing on NBC Sports Network. They are down for matches that are showcased on the ESPN family of networks.
Apologists and/or people looking to make excuses for the league can come up with a variety of reasons for the ratings downtrend. There are no Olympics or European Championship lead-ins for MLS contests this time around. Granted, MLS commercials run during Premier League and NFL games that have aired on non-league nights. Nevertheless, the US top-flight is essentially flying solo in 2013.
MLS is about to take part in pivotal negotiations. The league's TV deal with NBC ends at the conclusion of the 2014 regular season, and it sure seems, on paper, at least, that NBC would be just fine without MLS. NBC began a new relationship with the Premier League in August 2013, one that includes Saturday and Sunday in-studio "Match of the Day" programming that is much cheaper to produce than are live MLS matches. NBC also struck a deal with NASCAR this past July, a partnership that will officially begin in 2015.
What was true back in the summer 2011 remains true heading into the fall season of 2013. Wherever MLS ends up on US TV after 2014 is irrelevant if both the league and that station ignore the obvious. Without at least one time-slot per week dedicated to MLS programming, the league doesn't have a real national TV contract.
Yes, MLS needs an actual "Soccer Night in America."
It's been said time and time and time again, and everybody who has said it has been spot on since day one. It's not a coincidence that Major League Baseball has Sunday, Monday and Wednesday night games on ESPN that consistently air in the same time-slots every week of the season. The same can be said about Sunday and Monday Night Football broadcasts.
Any deal put in front of MLS that does not include a so-called "SNIA" is not one worth taking at this stage of the game. Soccer is more popular in the United States than ever before. Ratings for EPL and US Men's National Team televised matches and also home attendance figures for national games prove that to be true. There is zero evidence, regardless of what anybody is trying to sell you, that the same can be said about MLS.
I get that this is a big ask for MLS. Things get murky on Saturday evenings once college football season begins, and even worse on Sunday nights at the kickoff of the NFL campaign. Saturday afternoons would mean competing against the likes of college football in the fall and college basketball in the winter and early spring. MLS will undeniably drown on fall Sunday afternoons because of the NFL, and that will never change.
This brings me back to a question I have asked for years: Why not Friday night? Broadcast TV doesn't put up much of a fight minus a couple of shows that, if we're being honest about it, aren't drawing the eyes of the casual sports fan looking to watch a live game. ESPN doesn't have MLB on Fridays, and the college football/basketball games that do air during those seasons aren't the marquee match-ups of that particular week. The NFL isn't a worry, and the same can be said about the NHL and NBA (NBC, assuming that the company is still interested in MLS, doesn't have TV rights to the NBA).
Whatever night is chosen, those running MLS have to be steadfast when working on what is now an unknown new TV deal. American television viewers, especially sports fans, are creatures of habit. My wife, as an example, may not look at a NFL schedule every week, but she knows that a game will be on NBC every Sunday night at 8:25 pm during the season. She never needs reminded of it.
That MLS doesn't pull in the ratings to deserve one night per week on any station is a self-fulfilling prophecy, an endless cycle that causes the league to be buried underneath Formula One Racing reruns and CFL games. A Soccer Night in America can work, but only in the hands of a company that believes in it and that will have patience. It shouldn't take effort to know when and where MLS will be shown on television during any given weekend.
It still is in 2013, though, and that's a big problem.
Zac has been covering the USMNT, Holland, Tottenham Hotspur, New York Red Bulls, Major League Soccer and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.
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