If the MLS SuperDraft is so important, why isn’t it being televised? Just how super can it be?
Selection of the top pick -- Chicago is in the pole position as of Tuesday night but the Fire is, as it should, soliciting trade offers -- will be shown live by ESPN on SportsCenter, but that’s it. The league’s first big event of the year will not be seen except via the Internet.
The SuperDraft can be seen only in the streaming universe on the services of ESPN and the league’s Web site, MLSsoccer.com. For a league that signed a blockbuster -- by its standards -- TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision last year and recently announced a deal by which its games will be shown in more countries and more extensively than ever before, this seems to be a significant slap-down.
It really isn’t. Time constraints have worked against the SuperDraft as the league expanded and with 20 teams selecting players, it’s impossible to cram the first round into a one-hour window. A two-hour window is too long. And why would a broadcast company bother if the entire first round can’t be shown in the allotted time?
Ideally, a sport that plays its games in 90 minutes could fit a first round into a 90-minute broadcast window, but even so, the fact is that MLS hasn’t established itself in the general sports marketplace to the extent that a casual fan will tune into the SuperDraft just out of curiosity. The vast majority of players available are coming out of college and aside from the men’s and women’s College Cup final fours, there are very few national telecasts other than those on ESPNU. Many regional broadcast systems, through alliances and partnerships with conferences, carry a fair number of men’s and women’s games.
But the major issue regarding the SuperDraft has much less to do with the college game, per se, or the handful of international players who attended the Player Combine every year and are eligible to be drafted. The SuperDraft is a gathering of those who shape the professional game in North America.
As the league has expanded its own player development programs and added different methods -- and more than a few byzantine rules -- by which to acquire players, it has devalued the SuperDraft, yet there’s certainly no concerted move nor valid reason to drop it. Draft picks are chips to be used in trades, of course, and for coaching staffs and GMs and technical directors of the teams, the adidas Player Combine in Florida and SuperDraft itself (in Baltimore this year) provide six or seven days’ worth of discussion, debate and dickering over deals.
Those meetings and conversations invariably find their way, indirectly and sporadically, onto the Internet. Every day since the New Year, news of player signings and trades and other personnel matters have churned through the Internet, which is the primary conduit for fans to scratch their MLS itch. Not having the SuperDraft on ESPN2 is a blow to the league’s prestige in the eyes of some, but those conditioned to getting soccer on the WatchESPN app or Fox Sports Go or the league Web site will adjust. Most fans will still follow the SuperDraft on their computers anyway, so losing a national telecast really isn’t such a big deal in the long term.
One of the harsh lessons learned by MLS during its two decades of operation is that it can’t afford to waste time and money wooing those indifferent to soccer, which makes up the majority of viewers that devour content of the ESPN and Fox platforms. And the league has never issued a press release trumpeting TV ratings for the SuperDraft.
What’s a bit worrying is the fact that TV viewership of the 2015 MLS Cup final on ESPN, UniMas and UDN dropped 38 percent from the 2014 final that featured the Galaxy and the last game for Landon Donovan. The good news is that 32,000 viewers watched the 2015 final online, the largest such number in league history.
As they say in the business, going with what’s trending makes sense. The league desperately needs to increase its TV ratings across the board, but that doesn't include the SuperDraft.