By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard
There was an article on Yahoo last week talking about the low TV ratings this year for MLS. While the article didn’t dive into possible reasons why (except to point out that NBC had the Olympics last summer) there some major reasons that come to mind and the networks need to share some of the blame.
Last season was NBC Sports first season broadcasting MLS. While they do some by innovative things like having the color commentators between the benches they have some serious flaws that they have refused to correct. The major one being that they, and the league, continue to promote kickoffs a half hour before the actually happen. They have a pre-match show that runs some 25 plus minutes even though the programming guide says differently.
This main reason leads directly into the second, the late night kickoffs. This season their will be 11 games that kickoff at 10pm EST or later on NBC Sports Network. Add in the 25 -ish minute pre-match show and the ball is not being kicked off until 11pm EST at times.
When we look at the other major broadcast partner for MLS, ESPN makes some of the same mistakes. Between ESPN and ESPN 2 they will broadcast 9 games starting at 9pm EST or later and all 9 of those matches are on Sunday evening. The rematch of last seasons MLS Cup Final (Houston at LA Galaxy) was broadcast at 11pm EST on Sunday May 5th. Was there another major event on ESPN 2 that day?
To dig the point home, this past month (August 25th to be exact) one of the biggest games of the season didn’t kick off until 10pm EST…on a Sunday night. This match saw US Men’s National Team star Clint Dempsey make his home debut in front of 66,000 plus fans in Seattle as they took on arch rival Portland. It wasn’t exactly a battle of cellar dwellers either, this match had big playoff implications.
Did ESPN really expect the casual fan to stay up until midnight on a Sunday? This is MLS. Not the NFL.
An issue that cannot be ignored either is that some of the biggest fan bases and the last 4 MLS Cup Champions are all out west. Let’s face facts, if Columbus and Sporting KC are not playing well it’s not going to hurt the TV ratings all that much. But when major market teams like DC United and Chivas USA are two of the worst teams in the league, that is enough to yellow card any set of TV ratings. Add in the wildfire that is Toronto FC and things may not be looking great north of the border either.
What the article also didn’t touch on is attendance. According to Sports Business Journal (Volume 16 issue 18) as of August 12th there are 10 teams in positive territory year over year in attendance and 9 in decline. The worse? Chivas USA which is down 36%.
Add this up and their should be some concern in the league office but the fact remains that the networks share some of the blame here. Network executives are not as smart as they think they are even though they like to think they are.
MLS needs to take more control over what games are shown and if all possible, when they are shown. They can do this as they begin the next set of TV contract negotiations. Without this change, ratings may continue to decline regardless of how many Clint Dempsey’s are brought back to the league.