MLS on ESPN/ABC Continues to Underwhelm


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 my CSRN 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.

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.

7 thoughts on “MLS on ESPN/ABC Continues to Underwhelm”

  1. Great Article, I completely agree! I think there has to be a real push for advertising to be a lot better than what it is. Compare NBA, NFL or MLB's commercials to MLS and you see a very big difference: they are more exciting. It seems that our creativity is only to showcase goals and celebrations which do not do anything else to make MLS more exciting. There has to be better promotion of our exciting plays, tackles, footwork , fans, in a more creative and passionate way geared to the national viewer. Just look at the advertising in Euro 2008, a complete contrast to our league. Showcase players like Robbie Rogers, they create excitement every time they touch the ball, make a sincere effort to make soccer more aggressive and to reverse the thought that soccer is a soft sport, especially in America. There are a lot of things to fix and to change but as long as we don't speak our mind and don't try to bring in other potential fans, support sites like this one, e-mail the networks and demand better coverage, we are going to be stuck on this topic forever because we don't create the demand. I'm a marketing major at FIU, it frustrates me to think that this is what we market to the young kid who potentially might get hooked on the sport because he or she saw one of the faces of the league pull of an incredible play to win the game; lust like Tom Brady or Kobe. We don't have the resources, so we must do grassroot efforts to help our league. I saw the final with an MLS fan and two guys who only watch the World Cup, they were impressed with the level of play and will go to games if we get a team down here. It's going to take work , but we can improve it.

  2. Great piece.

    I think ESPN's executives find international soccer more “respectable” so they cross promote it and put a mainstream personality like Rece Davis in the studio. With regards to MLS it is treated as a niche event by ESPN and sadly it seems like it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

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