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MLS Kicks Off, Will American Television Audiences Notice?

MLS kicks off its 17th season in 2012, and its first in partnership with NBC. The PR is promising a revolution. The sober and curt might dismiss it as a marriage of convenience. The leagues hopes this will finally be the year it captures the American audience, but hearing the same empty, uninspired platitudes we do before every season, don’t count on it.

The league offers perhaps the best live experience in American professional sport. The new, soccer-specific stadiums are excellent. There’s organic atmosphere. Small details, such as having an array of quality beers on tap, are sweated. No one implores you to clap, clap, clap your hands…clap. Attendance, especially in the expansion markets, has been great. This success does not translate to television.

MLS averaged 291,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN2 last season and 70,000 viewers on FOX Soccer. That approximates what those networks would have averaged showing generic programming in those time slots. A similar performance on NBCSN would see the ratings drop even further.

NBC claims it will do better promoting MLS than ESPN did, though did ESPN truly do a bad job? The WWL ran advertisements for MLS during the World Cup, to a targeted audience of soccer fans and those amenable to watching the sport. It had no effect on MLS ratings. NBC might create some sweet ads, but considering NBC Sports Network has had trouble promoting itself, expecting ads during the Olympics and Notre Dame games to “do wonders” is more than a tad optimistic. The product must sell itself.

The network argues its superior production value will help MLS. Their major innovation will be placing Kyle Martino in a Pierre McGuire role at field level between the benches. What does this add?

Soccer doesn’t have timeouts, limiting the amount of interactions Martino could cover. Being “between the benches” is about the worst position in a stadium from which to analyze a soccer match. The low vantage point makes it impossible to see tactics and, since controversial action occurs near the penalty areas, Martino will be viewing the game’s crucial points from 40-yards away at an angle. Soccer has been televised for decades, to billions of people without such an innovation. There’s a reason for that.

MLS continues using the same refrain about the ratings coming as a natural outgrowth of the league’s popularity.

“We’re going to have to have higher TV ratings. There’s no doubt about that. But the growth of our TV audience, we believe, is related to the growth of the overall popularity of the league, our players, our clubs. And that’s a process that’s going to take some time,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a Thursday conference call in response to a question from Sporting News.

This is misguided. MLS ratings have been stagnant for years despite the league growing, soccer becoming more popular in general and one of the sport’s greatest stars arriving. The league is stable. It can continue the status quo with the live experience, but “growth” must begin on television. Ratings won’t just passively improve. MLS must market itself. The league needs discussion, compelling stories and stars. Judging from other successful leagues, it also needs a broad enough knowledge base to foster gambling and fantasy games. The only way to do that in 2012 is through TV.

NBC did bid aggressively for MLS. The salient point though is that FOX, with every incentive to help grow the sport in this country, did not. FOX has invested heavily in soccer, obtaining rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and funding two soccer-specific networks in the U.S., but never felt MLS worth a considerable effort. Soccer will continue to grow in the United States. If MLS fails to step up its game on television, it may not be a part of it.

[Photo via Getty]

 

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