A bit of a furor arose the other day when word came out that no longer will MLS coverage on the ESPN family of networks be confined to Thursdays, but rather be spread amongst several days of the week.
Thursdays will again feature more telecasts - 10 during the regular season - than any other night, and both league and TV execs hope that a more attractive lineup of games will offset any portion of the audience(s) that regularly tuned in, as per the theory of "appointment viewing."
However, in the parlance of MLS, "attractive" is a relative term, for the league still suffers greatly from one of its successes, i.e., many teams stamping their identities in their own markets. Those fans tune in, or attend, games of their own teams, but just aren't highly motivated to see other matchups, no matter how "attractive" they appear to be.
Sad to say, nothing less than David Beckham and the Galaxy moved the TV needle very much, and in the case of Toronto FC, its soccer-savvy fans can't watch games on ESPN2, since the network's programming isn't carried in Canada, which has its own sports networks.
Whatever the market-by-market breakdown of ESPN2 MLS viewing figures are, they don't add up to much, and have fallen far short of the 0.5 benchmark the network had hoped for when it signed an eight-year deal. Most games rate less than half of that figure.
What the network should acknowledge, and tailor its programming to, is a soccer audience that expects and deserves certain elements, rather than hoping that stronger lead-in programs will spill over into MLS games. Can anybody really believe that fans of the New York Yankees or Boston Bruins will stay tuned to see how the Crew fares in Salt Lake City?
What the league and network haven't done is convince Crew and RSL fans to watch Houston, the Galaxy, et al, regularly whenever possible. The critical mass of steady viewers for MLS programming is still very small. But if the matchups can't be terribly compelling maybe the production values can be.
ESPN might try giving its telecasts more of a soccer feel, such as with cameras stationed at the edge of the penalty area for good looks at most offside situations, a "score bug" with the home team listed first, a camera in each end zone for replays of scoring chances as well as disputed officiating decisions, and perhaps an innovation such as goal-line cameras for a dramatically different replay view as well as those situations of whether a ball crossed the line.
Goal-line cameras have been discussed and while the placement is problematic - FIFA rules prohibit anything attached to the goal nets or posts, and not every stadium can accommodate a camera aimed along the goal line from the stands - the network, at one stage, didn't take the issue any further when it couldn't find a sponsor for the gimmick. Not good.
Perhaps this TV dilemma is simply a function of the league's small national TV footprint, and relative youth. While most teams are covered by the area newspapers and Internet outlets, few of them get regular time - or in some cases, any time whatsoever -- from local radio and TV stations, other than those that carry the actual games.
National telecasts are cross-promoted amongst the ESPN networks, Fox Soccer Channel, TeleFutura and HDNet (which has yet to renew its commitment to MLS), and perhaps the individual teams could be more aggressive in promoting the national games on their own regional telecasts and local advertising outlets. But as FSC has found out with its regular Saturday coverage, some of the fans it wishes to reach will be watching the games of their own teams, either on TV or at the stadium.
It wouldn't seem those numbers could affect a national telecast, yet for a league that routinely draws less than 200,000 viewers for games on ESPN2, just about any portion of the potential audience is a significant one.
And before anyone gets the idea I think that only the dunderheads at ESPN stand between MLS and greater popularity, I can recall poorly planned segments, missed kickoffs, technical snafus, and lack of goal replays on all the networks, even the well-meaning folks at Telefutura and the soccer-specific gang at FSC. No one's perfect.
Still, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports" can be a prime player in the league's growth, and said network can get on the right track by accepting tenets and policies that apply to its fans, not those of football or baseball or basketball or billiards or tennis or poker. Each receives its own treatment, and the same should be true for soccer and MLS.