This is a guest column by frequent TSG contributor Jay Bell.
This international break is just concluding. Americans got a chance to watch some of their favorite countries play all over the world, except for the U.S. of course.
Fans got a chance to see the best teams in the world play, and for Europeans these games count.
Now U.S.-based fans will go back to MLS.
Some will be disappointed that MLS isn’t of better quality to compare with Euro qualifying (though, not many leagues are). For those who go back to watching Fox Soccer Channel’s “Match of the Week,” only more disappointment awaits. For a company that just began Fox Soccer Plus earlier in the year and fawns over the EPL, Serie A, and Champions League, FSC is still a huge disappointment for MLS fans.
You only have to look at the ratings to see that FSC’s presentation is still lacking. ESPN2 is now in about 98 million homes. The average 257,000 viewers is even down 10% from last season. Still that’s a .26. FSC has been able to get a boost from the World Cup and its broadcasts since have averaged 69,000 households and 92,000 viewers. That’s .17. For comparison, Telefutura’s Spanish broadcasts average 193,000 viewers. How does the soccer channel do worse than the other broadcasts?
Its easy to argue that ESPN2′s bigger audience attracts in more casual viewers. Why should it? We’re talking about soccer . . . in America. How many casual viewers are there for MLS? The most recent late Sunday match on ESPN2 between Chivas USA and D.C. United, both of which are mired at the bottom of the table, was only watched in a miniscule 77,000 households. It just goes to show that neither the league itself nor the channel determine how many people tune into the game. Other factors like quality of team, market size, matchups, and yes, production all determine how many people will watch. That last part is severely lacking at Fox Soccer Channel.
When an MLS fan tunes in to watch the weekly match on FSC, there is little to get excited about. They may mention the standings and injuries, but most of the pregame is superficial, pointless interviews and no real tactical analysis. It does not help that they make simple mistakes like confusing Fabian Espindola for Javier Morales, by saying that “the Argentine is one of the best players in the league”, and vague, qualitative statements like Arturo Alvarez having “the best left foot in the game.”
ESPN2 began last week’s broadcast with a look back to 1998. A flashback showed John Harkes (in the booth) with D.C. United and Ben Olsen scoring his first goal (now coaching) against Zach Thornton (Chivas’s GK) who was coached by Bob Bradley (who was in the stands). They then looked at D.C. United’s “revolving door” over the last 4 seasons and how it has affected the team. A graphic showed that Chivas was using their 18th different starting lineup that night. Harkes and Dellacamera looked at how Chivas has been more patient with Vazquez than D.C.U. was with Onalfo. In five minutes ESPN provided actual background and perspective that was more in-depth than an entire pre-game show on FSC.
It does not get better when the game starts either. FSC’s key points were that the teams needed to “set the tone” and Chivas needed to use the “home field advantage.” On FSC’s own “U.S. Soccer Journey for Glory,” one of the panelists stated that American soccer fans are not different from soccer fans in the rest of the world. They are just as passionate and just as smart. Yet FSC treats MLS fans like they’re not. Harkes and Dellacamera analyzed the formations and important players. For D.C. United, they needed to get the ball to Boskovic so he can spread it around the field. Chivas USA had a question mark of whether Braun and Maldonado could play well together and with the midfield. This isn’t groundbreaking, expert stuff, but it’s better than what they do on the soccer channel.
The commentators are the least of the issue, but may be the most criticized. Plus, FSC’s best new commentator isn’t even commentating. Fans groaned that Max Bretos’s “Yesssssssss!” call was ridiculous, but now bemoan the lack of enthusiasm and energy in the booth (Bretos now use his knowledge and enthusiasm in the studio for ESPN). They did step it up a little bit by introducing a couple new commentators for CONCACAF Champions League matches. Paul Caligiuri immediately stood out for deeper description and actual soccer knowledge. Though, when the audio doesn’t dissuade viewers from watching, the visuals do.
Why are Champions League matches always in standard definition? I know it has to do with CONCACAF and it’s understandable that they may not want to send a crew to Honduras for an HD broadcast. What about games in Columbus and Salt Lake? Those games broadcast in HD for MLS games; why not CCL? FSC’s main news show is not even shown in HD. It all displays such a low-cost feel and no one wants to watch low-budget productions. If the viewer does continue to watch the game, they may be punished by missing a goal during one of FSC’s unimportant instant replays.
Almost all of today’s sports channels have realized the need to treat the viewers right. That includes intelligent analysis and sleek graphics. One channel that understands that is Versus. Their broadcast quality looks nothing less than ESPN. Edson Buddle recently appeared on Versus where he was asked questions about his team and the league, not the standard “do you like Beckham” questions. There are rumors that Versus could broadcast MLS games in the future. For MLS fans, that is an outstanding prospect. Versus is currently better in every facet of sports broadcasting and would do far more for MLS fans.
For now, MLS fans just have to hope FSC starts to treat them better. Ratings on ESPN do not merit a half hour studio show, but it should not be too much to expect on the soccer channel. Having a studio show just for MLS and improving its main news show would be a great start. It will not matter down the line if FSC does not provide better broadcasts that include better analysis, better graphics, and better video quality.