Why not soccer telecasts for soccer fans?

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.

7 comments about "Why not soccer telecasts for soccer fans?".
  1. David Sirias, February 6, 2009 at 12:13 p.m.

    I am in agreement with the premise of the article. But I've not heard the following simple solution put forth: All nationallly televised games should be exclusive-- no other games competing against it.

    If there's a Thurs or Friday night espn game, it should be the only game being played. Its it's in prime time Saturday night, show it before the west coast evening games start and before the other games which would be played saturday afternoon or early eve.

    Too late for this year, but this is a topic not to be dropped.

  2. William Slattery, February 6, 2009 at 2:13 p.m.

    Red Bull fans may be different. Most of our best and most beloved players are now staring on other teams. While I was not interested in other teams' games in the beginning, I now find myself enjoying them.

  3. Douglas Jolly, February 6, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

    How about announcing the play-by-play instead of random stories of past games, other teams, or the announcer's supposed prowess when they used to play? Soccer audiences, like basketball and football fans, want to know about the game they are watching and to hear intelligent information as if each game is not their first stumble upon the sport.

  4. Teddy Roe, February 7, 2009 at 12:26 p.m.

    Right on, Ridge. We should be working to professionalize not only the playing of the MLS game but also its use of cameras and angles. And while we are at it -- and this is the point of my message and one with which I know you agree -- let's professionalize the play-by-play of the television announcers as well! What we have now are two color commentators chatting about player personalities and ancient history and leaving the viewer to guess who made that beautiful pass or defensive play. Upgrading the filming of MLS games will require much thought and money; upgrading play-by-play requires only the will to do so. So let's get on with the easiest and proceed to the more difficult.

  5. James Madison, February 7, 2009 at 8:20 p.m.

    If MLS required that ESPN commentators go to school on the eloquent and observant comments made by Fox Soccer Channel commentators and quit the idle chit-chatting, the ESPN audience for MLS matches would double overnight!

  6. David Hernandez, February 12, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.


    I just moved to the USofA recently (year and a half) from Monterrey, MX. First thing I did was investigate all I could relating to MLS and the Dynamo... for a new life, new things... I had been totally disenchanted with Mexican football for years anyway...

    So, to the point, I have watched several games of the MLS and I had a hard time fully enjoying the experience... I thougt that with time and commitment I would get to know the players better, the history, rivalries, etc and get a lot more of "the flavor", if you allow me to use such a phrase, of the whole experience...

    It is until I read this blog that I see part of the problem... In Mexico's obsession with the sport (specially for the local tournament) the TV transmissions have become very thorough... for any other play you would get two or three replays from different angles, specially important plays, or nice moves, or a doubtful call from a ref... it is kind of like what we have here in the NFL...

    I hadn't noticed the absence of such replays during the transmissions (I probably am not an acute observant) of MLS games, but it is exactly that (and probably the play by play calling mentioned before) that makes it difficult to enjoy a game by TV.

    I am confident, nevertheless, that this issues can be easily solved. I am not naive though, having so many cameras in the field has to be be expensive, and the savvy of a producer to manage the different shoots available has to be learned probably by the long road...

    So I renew my commitment to watching MLS games on TV... and I just bought my season tickets for my Dynamo...

    forever orange

  7. Oscar Barboza, February 17, 2009 at 5:02 a.m.

    I agree with David Hernandez regarding the TV transmissions format, in saying they have tried to become very thorough… ESPN or who ever is televising needs to offer the viewer two or three replays from different angles, specially important plays, nice player moves, or a doubtful call from a ref, now even to include the PHANTOM CAMERA (SLOW MOW)…which is an awsome option to view offered by the two top TV transmitters in Mexico Televisa and TVAzteca, Your are definitely right in saying they must take and copy what is offered here in the NFL…

    I am more than sure there are savy producers in Mexico that would not think twice in coming over to work, and spear head this effort in the US, as any MLS club seeks playing talent abroad, ESPN should invest in this aspect of their soccer coverage to offer a better quality product to the viewer. Currently, I still struggle when viewing an MLS televised game, to be following the play by play and suddenly have the camera switch focus to the comentators, take commercial breaks during halves, or focus on the player bench for a 20 to 30 second interval, or view a fan for the same period of time, or listen to the comentators talk about some issue totally unrelated to the broadcasted game, this happens everywhere but there is a time and place for these type of breaks during the live transmission.

    This is a total turnoff as a viewer.

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