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What ESPN's shift could mean
by Paul Kennedy, January 20th, 2009 7:01AM
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The news that the Thursday night time slot held for "MLS Primetime Thursday" on ESPN2 has been released is hardly the news MLS wanted to get out as the countdown to the 2009 season began in earnest.

In the Sports Business Report report, arguments were made that the decision to carry 27 games over four different days (Wednesday-Saturday) during the 2009 season provided opportunities to increase the ratings, but it could have major implications for MLS and its TV presence.

The basis for the decision, according to Scott Guglielmino, ESPN vice president of programming, is that MLS ratings failed to climb. Indeed, they fell more than 12 percent from 2007 to 2008 to an average of 253,000 viewers a game. (Sports Business Journal previously reported that the numbers dropped an almost equal amount on Spanish-language TeleFutura -- 11 percent to 254,000 a game.)

The signing of David Beckham by the Los Angeles Galaxy coincided with the introduction of destination programming, what was dubbed the "linchpin" of ESPN2's coverage of domestic soccer, part of an eight-year agreement between MLS and ESPN for a rights fee estimated at $8 million a year.

While Beckham's presence boosted the ratings -- his second MLS game for the Galaxy in 2007 drew a high of 658,000 viewers -- the demise of "MLS Primetime Thursday" may give Beckham and MLS less incentive to extend their marriage into 2010 and 2011.

MLS's ESPN2 ratings in the quarter million range are about what the Arena Football League got in 2008, and it has canceled its 2009 season. There's no chance that will happen to MLS, but ESPN's decision shows just how hard it remains for MLS to achieve a national presence on television -- even after expanding its membership by half since 2005.

MLS officials have for many years talked about developing its national footprint through expansion in major television markets, but if MLS doesn't have viewers in front of their televisions at home, it must at least have fans in seats.

The latest development is support for expansion into smaller markets such as Portland (25th largest market) and Vancouver (Canada) instead of South Florida (9th largest market and the only top 10 market MLS will not be in after Philadelphia begins play in 2010).

Such a move would reflect the growth of MLS as a West Coast league and the (relative) value of ESPN2 broadcasts in West Coast prime time -- and be supported by ESPN's efforts to provide better "lead-ins," the programming that immediately precedes the broadcast. (A few of the possible early lead-ins are of dubious value -- college bowling and men's college volleyball.)

The elephant in the room, of course, is the possibility that ESPN might seek U.S. television rights to the English Premier League currently held by Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta. For the first time last fall, FSC (with one third of the number of households as ESPN2) paid for Nielsen to compile ratings, and the early numbers for some EPL games were five times those for MLS games.

It's one thing for ESPN to air one-off events like the World Cup or European Championship or offer periodic coverage of the UEFA Champions League, but weekly coverage of a league generating significantly better ratings than MLS on the Deuce or another ESPN network would be a serious problem.

On a more positive note, MLS's numbers aren't significantly different from those of the NHL, the league above it in the pecking order of the American leagues, with an average viewership of 310,732 a game on Versus for its first 31 telecasts -- up 17 percent from last year.

Supporting a salary cap higher by a multiple of about 20, NHL teams are incurring losses as high as $25 million-$35 million.

The good news for MLS owners is that the current TV picture is hardly a case for large salary increases when they negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union.

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