MLS officials discussing possible TV changes

[MLS] There may be major changes next year regarding Major League Soccer on television, but its ratings so far this season on ESPN2 and Fox Soccer Channel aren’t encouraging. According to a story in the Sports Business Daily earlier this week, ratings for MLS telecasts are down 12.3 percent from last year and down 1.6 percent from its telecasts in 2008. Games this season are averaging 249,000 viewers compared to 284,000 last season.

Telecasts on Fox Soccer Channel average 53,000 viewers per telecast, which is the same as last year, though an Aug. 14 telecast of Rafael Marquez’s league debut for the Red Bulls more than doubled that average with 144,000 viewers.

“Every league is constantly seeking more viewers to their games,” said Commissioner Don Garber. “We work hard with all our broadcast partners to achieve that: promotion, marketing, scheduling, production -- and production continues to improve -- to take one of those issues. It’s also a matter of what we do to improve our quality of play and so many other things, so hopefully we’ll grow the relevance of our clubs and the overall interest in our clubs that will translate into growth of our television ratings.”

The league’s contract with FSC expires at the end of the season, and though Garber is confident that a new deal will be struck, MLS has also discussed a partnership with the Versus network, which has a much greater reach (74.7 million households) than FSC (approximately 37 million).

MLS is contracted with ESPN through 2014 and its Univision deal isn’t up for renewal. In 2010 the league is scheduled to receive between $15 million and $20 million for rights to its games.

“It does not need to be one or the other,” said Garber of games perhaps running on both FSC and Versus, which has impressed MLS officials with its game production and studio coverage of the NHL. “We are very, very focused with renewing our deal with Fox Soccer Channel, and have had a number of discussions with Versus on their interest in Major League Soccer. How that gets resolved will be determined in the next couple of months.”

Versus, which is owned by Comcast, is based in Philadelphia, where the expansion Union averaged 19,254 fans in its first season. It is also one of the few MLS teams to air its games over-the-air, rather than on local cable network. Many league teams use regional Comcast SportsNet networks for their local television packages and while Garber isn’t releasing any figures, financial or otherwise, he’s adamant that more teams have cut good broadcast deals than in the past, when teams had to buy the air time and also pay production costs.

“Philly’s got an over-the-air package that does very well, Salt Lake does, Seattle’s doing very, very well. Los Angeles is doing well and Chivas also has a very good local television deal. There are quite a few clubs that do very well locally.”

ESPN2 has instituted a regular Thursday-Sunday schedule of telecasts for the playoffs, including the Nov. 21 final in Toronto that kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was unable to clear the kickoff time to air the game. It will be carried instead on TSN2 (The Sports Network), of which 20 percent is owned by ESPN, which is not legally distributed in Canada.

MLS Cup 2010 is scheduled to be broadcast in 116 countries by ESPN International.

8 comments about "MLS officials discussing possible TV changes ".
  1. Rick Taylor, November 4, 2010 at 8:47 a.m.

    I contend ESPN is part of the problem, not promoting the games except during other soccer games is preaching to the choir. Showing highlights, giving the crawler, putting it out there in the public eye will improve numbers as "passive fans" will remember the game is on. If you don't subscribe to a soccer web site or are part of a fan group, you wouldn't know when or where to view a game on TV. I don't follow baseball, but all season long I know who is hot and who is playing whom just from the teasers coming in and out of commercial on Sportscenter. ESPN is part of the problem right now and will continue to be so until they actually give soccer some respect and quit treating MLS like a burden.

  2. Marcia Cronin, November 4, 2010 at 8:56 a.m.

    My family has been frustrated this year by not being able to find the soccer games in the same place at the same time. Last year it seemed like we could usually count on Thursday night MLS soccer around 8 p.m. each week on ESPN (if I recall correctly). This year there is the occasional Thursday night game but nothing we could get in the habit of watching. I know I can see NLF every Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night, but I never know when (or where) I'll find soccer. We don't pay for FSC, so our ability to watch is limited. And we're not staying up to see games that start at 10 p.m. We'd love to see more MLS but we can't subscribe to all the niche channels. I long for the day when you can pick the channels you want in your cable package!

  3. C. Zee, November 4, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

    I agree that a major problem is the consistancy of the MLS broadcasts.

    Some weeks its on, then weeks go by without a match on ESPN. The NFL has been able to mandate Monday Night Football to either 8 or 9 PM (EST).

    Lastly, ESPN has put no priority on soccer as it has with baseball and basketball.

    It is wonder that so many Americans tune into EPL, La Liga and Bundesliga every week - for the usual days and times ... not to meantion the support of soccer news from FSC and GOL TV.

  4. Ted Westervelt, November 4, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.

    The problem isn't consistency of broadcast, refs, or ESPN. The problem is a league that is so insulated from financial pressure, guys like Don Garber say that they're unconcerned about TV ratings. We have to have the courage to give American soccer supporters credit: The majority don't like the product.

    As the ponderous ponder, people wonder:
    If MLS has been so successful insulating itself from the financial alarm bells that should be going off when viewership drops like this - might it be time to burst their bubble? We might have taken notice when Don Garber said that "TV ratings don't concern" him earlier this year. Time to tie the ref complaints, the dropping tv ratings, and dwindling MLS player representation on World Cup rosters together. Their survival plan for MLS doesn't include popularity, tv ratings, or even big crowds. The MLS "plan" has always revolved around the lack of popularity of soccer. This is just another example. We deserve better.

  5. Tim King, November 4, 2010 at 11:05 a.m.

    MLS and those running it are building a league and a Marketing Corp (SUM) but not doing much to promote it. My friends outside the soccer world have not seen any promotion, advertising, etc. of Major League Soccer in America. The executives at MLS just expect people to come without any insight or incentives - they won't.
    It would also help if they shed the ancient Anerican model of "conferences" and stop trying to create false rivalries. The rivalries are already there they just need to use it to an advertising and sponsor money advantage. TV is only as good as the brand and MLS is week. Get a Barclay's or other to help defer the cost of advertising. Get matches on at regular days and times. Garber has done ok. The next step is to get a real football executive (not NFL) in charge.

  6. David Huff, November 4, 2010 at 5:02 p.m.

    I concur with Ted and Tim (a diiferent T&T?), the MLS product has not been made attractive or convenient enough for fans to watch. The folks running MLS are the same ones causing mediocrity with the USSF for the USMNT so I'm hardly surprised.

  7. Mark Johnston, November 4, 2010 at 10:58 p.m.

    I don't like Thursday night for a game, it should be Wednesday- Makes travel easier. Having said that , how about Versus on WED, Fox on SAT and ESPN on SUN=== the NFL.
    Assuming Fox Espanol and ESPN Desportes can also show SAT & Sun, you would have coverage on 5 networks.. Other key is what other person said.. don't just advertise on "soccer games".. put the $ into other time slots and during other shows..We are also really missing a MLS highlights show, because other than some minutes on Fox Socer Report, there is not much MLS news out there..

  8. Glenn Maddock, November 18, 2010 at 3:59 p.m.

    Many of you have missed the point of soccer on TV. MLS doesn't control it at all. ESPN does. ESPN rules sports in the US. They call the shots, not soccer. If they want a match on Thursday at 11pm, they get it. You have to be on ESPN to be relevant, so you have to play by their rules. If anyone cant figure out when soccer is on, get a DVR, press Soccer, hit record. My 8 year old can do it.

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