Part of the problem Major League Soccer has on television is undoubtedly the amateur nature in which the Disney family network has treated the league for years. We’ve had shows come and go like MLS Extra Time, and MLS Soccer Saturday. We’ve seen the TV ratings go down almost every year and have continued to be insulted when ESPN or ESPN 2 showcases other sporting events during MLS games but never MLS games during other sporting events. (I taped the Miami-Virginia Tech game that I attended at the same time as a taped Crew-Fire. During the MLS games every 30 minutes we were reminded that ESPN was showing Miami-Va Tech, but never during the ACC game were we reminded that ESPN 2 was showing an MLS game.) This has gone on for years and years as it seems like the network never wants to promote MLS during other sports broadcasts.
The MLS Cup on ABC this past Sunday was more of the same. JP Dellecamara is a true professional but otherwise listening to the broadcast was a waste of time and insult to the intelligence. John Harkes didn’t have a whole lot to say of a critical nature during the telecast and Julie Foudy continued to be the master of the obvious in the studio with the always upbeat and pro MLS Rob Stone. ABC has averaged a 0.8 rating for MLS Cup the last few years while many more viewers have watched international matches when featured on ABC. Yet no effort has been made by the Disney networks to reach beyond MLS’ core of fans. When ESPN and ABC were not paying rights fees for the league this was more understandable. Now however it makes no sense whatsoever. The network seems to be ashamed of having the rights to MLS even though they cross promote US National Team games with other sporting properties and get much higher viewership for the random US game than for even the best MLS games on ESPN and ESPN 2.
The in game production was satisfactory other than all of the typical ESPN graphics and of course the bottom line ticker. This brings up another issue. For years the Disney networks have promoted sports they have the rights to by building the brand and name recognition through basic things. One of the most basic ways of doing this is on the bottom line where with every major college football, college basketball, MLB, NFL, or NBA game they give a basic individual statistic next to the score. With MLS this would be simple: list a goalscorer or two with the number of goals they’ve scored during the season in parenthesis. However this has never been done. It’s obvious even on the bottom line ticker,ESPN is anxious to get MLS or any other Soccer news of the screen as quickly as possible.
The mainstream media largely based in the Northeast still has a bias against this game. Much of the growth of football in the United States has been fueled by immigration patterns in what Kevin Phillips, the former Republican strategist turned cynical author coined the Sun Belt. As is the case with the mainstream news media whose tendencies and reporting seem to lag behind the reality of American society based on geography, ESPN’s recognition of the massive move towards this sport reflects the bias of the print media and long time sports writers whose world rises and sets with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants, el al. Many of these same writers just recently broadened their horizons in College Football to discover the quality of the game in South and Plains states. These same writers who today dismiss Soccer previously saw NCAA Football as the exclusive province of Notre Dame and the Big Ten.
ESPN has done Football fans a service in this country by paying for MLS rights. But how they aim to improve the interest in the product without building the brand is illogical. The network made the effort to promote the Euros and that payed off with good TV ratings even by the standards of the soccer skeptics in elite media circles. The US National Team continues garner respectable ratings on the networks and both ESPN U and CBS College Sports Network have made an impressive effort this past season to cover and promote College Soccer. As I mentioned a few weeks back on the American Soccer Show, I have actually been more exposed to College Soccer this year on TV than MLS because their is much conversation about it on the sporting channels: CBS College Sports Network in particular has made an effort to actually discuss Soccer on their nightly news show which is football/basketball driven. Well timed interviews builds interest in specific teams and stories. When ESPN 2 aired MLS Extra Time for a few seasons in the early part of this decade it served almost as a highlights only show which was useful but without interviews and compelling stories the ratings were nearly nill and the network dropped the show. Being busy the last month plus trying to make ends meet in what has become for me personally a rough economic patch my time to sit and digest the football news has been limited and believe it or not College Soccer news a clearly second rate product has been more accesible to me than MLS news on TV: can you imagine that?
One would be foolish to expect MLS to get the kind of respect even a sport with less TV viewers like Hockey. The NHL despite a lack of passionate following in the Sun Belt is a sport that remains popular in the elite media circles of the Northeast. However, it would be wise for ESPN to make some token effort to build the MLS brand having invested millions of dollars in rights fees for years to come.