Jay Bell on what MLS needs to get some eyeballs
“Give me consistency or give me death.” – The new battle cry of MLS viewers.
The second half of the 2013 Major League Soccer season has seen the arrival of Clint Dempsey, more homegrown players and more Designated Players – giving every MLS team a DP for the first time in league history. The Los Angeles Galaxy also re-upped with one of the league’s top stars, Omar Gonzalez, and Landon Donovan, still the face of MLS.
The middle third of the season also saw the announcement of the 20th MLS team, New York City FC, with the uber-richness of Manchester City owner, Sheikh Mansour, and the political influence of the New York Yankees. David Beckham and Marcelo Claure were checking out Miami, though news has cooled on that front, and Orlando looks all but certain to secure a spot in MLS when a stadium announcement is finally made.
Despite all of the improvements on and off the field in MLS, more sobering news came this past week to further illuminate the league’s most glaring and substantial problem (yes, even worse than Jorge Vergara, sorry Chivas USA fans): national broadcast ratings.
MLS finished the last two seasons with David Beckham with averages of over 300,000 viewers per match on ESPN broadcasts. NBC Sports Network’s first year of league broadcasts finished with a decent average of 125,000 in 2012. Viewership on ESPN has dropped by 27 percent in 2013 and 20 percent on NBCSN.
It doesn’t take long to figure out why.
ESPN has focused its broadcasts on Sundays this year. There have been 16 MLS games broadcast on Sundays this year that have started at nine different times. There is no one time where an MLS, soccer or random sports fan can say, “I’ll sit down at __ o’clock and watch the MLS game.” Plus, those 16 Sunday games have been spaced out over 28 weeks so far.
It would be incredibly difficult to be any more inconsistent. At least for four straight weeks in September and October we get an MLS game at 9 p.m. eastern time each Sunday.
The most popular international tournaments – World Cup, European Championship, Olympics – are in even-numbered years, leaving MLS without helpful lead-ins this season. All ESPN had was a US-less and Mexico-less Confederations Cup (yes, I know Mexico was physically there, but were they really there?). I doubt Fox’s coverage of the Gold Cup “B” tournament helped ESPN or NBC at all since they mainly scheduled around it.
The drop on NBCSN has bee more disappointing because of the network’s stellar production, frequent advertisements and additional attention to the league, such as MLS 36. Unfortunately, start times have been just as infrequent, ranging from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.
And what is with the late start times? This isn’t Spain. I love that NBCSN is testing the waters on Friday nights and I know sports viewers are more likely to be up later on Fridays and Saturdays, but 10 of their broadcasts have been at 8 p.m. ET or later. Five of ESPN’s Sunday broadcasts have been at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. ET. What did we get, about 19 people east of the Mississippi to watch those games?
If Fox Sports 1 decides to broadcast a game between Washington State and USC at 10 p.m. ET, you know they’re not aiming for viewers in New York. Soccer isn’t college football and MLS isn’t the Pac 12. As stellar as attendance and excitement has been for teams on the west coast, MLS needs New York viewers and it needs the east coast.
Then there is congestion. MLS already has to fight against the NFL, college football, NBA, college basketball, MLB, NHL and NASCAR viewing times. It also has to fight against interest for the UEFA Champions League, English Premier League, Liga MX and other leagues and super clubs around the world.
So why is MLS competing against itself and the rest of American soccer? League broadcasts are scheduled at the start of each season with seemingly zero regard for the rest of the MLS schedule, let alone the likes of the US national team, the USWNT, NWSL, NASL and USL Pro.
Take a recent and exciting Saturday match between Seattle and Chicago at CenturyLink Field. The game itself had a great atmosphere and an announced attendance of 38,503. The game began at the same time as two other MLS matches. Two other MLS matches began an hour and a half earlier. That’s roughly 75,000 potential viewers that are at least more likely to add viewers than the general population. Another 20,000 were in Orlando to watch Orlando City win a thrilling USL Pro championship. There’s no telling how many other interested parties from Charlotte and the rest of the country were following that match instead of the lone national broadcast that evening.
It is not possible to schedule broadcasts that will always avoid overlapping with other soccer matches in the US and Canada, but it could definitely be scheduled smarter than it was Saturday night. Those types of situations are also going to be completely unavoidable when all broadcasts are scheduled 10 months ahead of time.
If MLS and its broadcast partners would finally maximize their viewing potential in the current settings, then they would be able to bring in more revenue. That revenue can then be spent in ways to grow the viewership in new ways. The current formula is stagnant at best.
Current ratings on their own would suggest that MLS has little hope to increase the value of its broadcast partnerships when the current contracts expire after the 2014 season, but MLS does have a surprising amount of leverage going into the new round of negotiations.
The league’s power play is the introduction of New York City FC. A club that will play its matches in actual New York City is a boon for MLS, although the amount of time it stays at Yankee Stadium could become detrimental. The league is also guaranteed to be telling network executives that Miami is on its way into the league. Potential teams in Miami and Orlando would get MLS back into Florida and into the southeast (kind of), adding a region of televisions MLS has been largely without for most of its history.
MLS has some leverage with the networks too, but not enough to garner huge increases in the value of those deals.
Major League Soccer will be ESPN’s lone holdover of its longtime interest in soccer. The company has lost rights to the EPL, Champions League and the World Cup over the last year. Any long-term interest in soccer will have to be built around MLS and the US national teams. US rosters now boast a proud number of MLS stars, more than it has in years. Without MLS, all of the highlights and discussion on ESPN FC will be about leagues and players that viewers can only watch on other channels.
It is not guaranteed that NBC will submit a bid for the next deals, but if it does, the network will likely be competing with Fox and BeIN Sport.
Fox’s coverage of MLS seemed to get worse over the years and it never gave the league the love that NBC has, but the company stole ESPN’s thunder by swooping in for World Cup and Champions League rights. ESPN was left with its precious EPL, but NBC took that too. Rights to MLS can help NBC build its soccer interest, even if still only slightly.
BeIN has gobbled up the rights to several leagues, begrudgingly to many American soccer fans because of its ever-so-slowly increasing availability to American viewers. But you can bet the rights to MLS would get the channel in more households quickly.
One of the three will make MLS a decent offer and win the rights. I can’t see how any would be negative for the league’s fans because they all have their upsides and would have an interest in the league. FC Dallas’ Dan Hunt said that negotiations for the next round of deals (NOT in 2014, but after the 2014 deals expire) could be life-changing. So we likely won’t see major changes in 2015, except maybe its own half hour show on one of the channels.
There are four clear-cut methods MLS should go about improving its broadcast ratings. The networks are in charge of the broadcasts, but its up to MLS to maximize the value of its product. The first four steps they need to take are:
1) Build consistent scheduling
2) Institute flex scheduling
3) Claim a holiday
4) Fill in the gaps.
1) Consistency is absolutely key, another notion Hunt echoed.
MLS needs to carve out its own time slots and stick to them. What sense does it make to have such random start times? The first step is to stake a claim on certain days for national broadcasts. Local stations can broadcast games on other days. By currently catering to everybody by scheduling broadcasts for all different days at all different times, it is actually catering to no one.
Sports viewers know with absolutely certainty that from September through November, college football starts at noon (all times eastern), 3:30 p.m. and somewhere around 7-8:30 p.m. every Saturday. They know that the NFL starts at 1, 4 and 7:30 on Sunday. Then there is Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football. The list goes on: MLB on Sunday night, NBA on Sunday and Wednesday, college basketball on Tuesday, NASCAR on Sunday afternoons, etc.
Notice how none of these times are leaving games trudging on after 11 p.m., save for some long-running NFL and MLB games.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I am a huge proponent of going after Friday night. Friday is where network television shows go to die, but your average MLS viewer isn’t your average network TV viewer. Stake a claim on Friday and schedule games at the same time every week. They can broadcast a double header at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. or just go with a single game at 7, but start it and stick to it. MLS viewers can watch a match Friday night and still have time to go out, that is unless MLS insists on continuing to have broadcasts that start at 10 p.m. or later.
The best time to capitalize on Saturday viewers is to schedule it immediately after that morning’s EPL matches, whether it is on the same channel or not. You’ll have the same viewers looking to find the game and fans of other games won’t be leaving the house yet for their club’s match. Games should start at 2:30 p.m., no later than 3, every single Saturday.
Consistency also means a larger commitment. Scheduling needs to be every week, not 16 games in 28 weeks. It may mean less money per match for MLS, but it would be more beneficial to grow the numbers. Same time, each week, same network. It worked for Batman. It will work for MLS.
2) Institute flex scheduling
MLS is not the NFL and its not MLB. It can’t just show random matchups and expect the same ratings. Better games and more interesting clubs garner higher ratings. The full quality of those matchups cannot be known 10 months ahead of time. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of college football fans wait every week to find out if one of their team’s upcoming games will be picked up by a network and start at a different time than previously listed. MLS clubs are fully capable of working with their fans.
I know MLS and its owners/investors want to get all of their teams on TV, but it does no one any good to show two bad teams playing bad in October. Remember that DC/Chivas match? Ugh.
Obviously every team should get their broadcasts, but flex scheduling can still highlight which games are more likely to be of higher quality. Networks can see which players are going to be out for international play or due to injuries. Still, you know its not fair or efficient to have Real Salt Lake on national television three times the entire season. That’s ridiculous enough on its own right as good of an advertisement for MLS as RSL and its fans are.
3) Claim a holiday
The NFL claimed Thanksgiving and the NBA claimed Christmas day. Christmas was so important that the NBA and the players sped up negotiations and (unfortunately) preparations for the start of the 2011-2012 season. College football was traditionally centered around the New Year’s Day bowls, but money has warped that landscape.
The biggest holidays available to MLS teams are Independence Day and Easter. Trying to have a ton of games on Easter might not work out great, while marketing for other holidays like Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Halloween, etc. likely wouldn’t be very fruitful.
My nomination is for Independence Day, where each home team can have their own fireworks show every year.
4) Fill in the gaps.
There are a lot of gaps in sports throughout the year, especially for a few months in between the NBA and NFL seasons. MLS could do a better job of finding ways to be more relevant during that time period.
And for the love of all that is holy, can MLS please own the day after the MLB All-Star game, aka the most barren sports day of the entire calendar year. Even “pundits” (couldn’t make myself type “experts) on Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn would be willing to talk about soccer for a few minutes on that day every year.
We have ample evidence that MLS broadcast methods are not working. The league faces competition from leagues around the world in a challenge that other American sports leagues simply don’t face, but that is always going to be part of the deal.
Changes must be made now or else the league and its partners are going to risk the ratings floundering to the point to where the broadcasts are not even financially worth the costs.