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Time for MLS and ESPN to Make Changes Together

In early August of 2006, it was announced that ESPN had paid for the rights to broadcast MLS.  At the announcement, officials from both sides agreed that ESPN would brand MLS with all the glory that its broadcasting style conveys to U.S. sports fans.   But, another MLS season has come and gone and except for the soccer purists, it has passed without much fanfare once again. 

There are 6 seasons left on the contract with ESPN.  These next 6 seasons, ending in 2014, should be the indicator for success or failure.  ESPN will not renew the contract if it is a failing product. 

ESPN is the giant in sports broadcasting and will not go forward with MLS unless the future is solid.  The one caveat to add to what happens in 2014 would be if ESPN makes a bid to buy a majority stake in MLS (as it did with Arena Football, though it was a minority stake).  This would only happen if ESPN spotted an opportunity in which they felt that they could take the sport farther along on their own without MLS executives calling the shots.  It then becomes a situation where ESPN feels they know the sporting public’s interests better than MLS.

MLS must look deeper into itself if it wants to gain the respect of mainstream U.S. sports fans.  MLS executives and those with deep ties to MLS like to put a happy face on for the public when it comes to talking about the growth of the sport in the U.S., but it is hard to tell what is the true status of the sport.

There are obvious positive things to say when comparing the sport to what it was 13 years ago before its inaugural season.  There are soccer-specific stadiums.  Soccer is seen much more on television.  There are more fans of soccer now in the U.S. and there are more franchises on the MLS waiting list.  

But, how much more time does the league need before it will make a major impact on the U.S. sports landscape? And, how will this economical recession the U.S. is in effect the league’s progress? 

With the stock market the way it is now, it is hard to trust what anyone has to say about financials.  It seems that 2 accountants could look at the MLS books and come up with 2 different outlooks.  So, what is the truth about the financials of MLS?  How many years can MLS afford to languish as a cellar dweller with U.S. sports fans, yet have its franchises worth 40 million some odd dollars? 

The most important relationship for MLS to cultivate is the one with ESPN.  The relationship does not appear to be as strong as it should be.  The relationship needs work.  MLS should be listening more to ESPN’s feedback. 

ESPN bought into the relationship to broaden soccer’s appeal nationwide and make money for its network.  It has done this for nearly every sport that it has acquired broadcasting rights.

Is MLS about making money or about gaining respect around the world?  

Is MLS making a profit at this point?  It probably would depend on which accountant you believe. 

7 Responses to Time for MLS and ESPN to Make Changes Together

  1. sad_fan says:

    ESPN has bought the tv rights but does nothing with them. It does not promote the league at all and treats it as a stepchild. Case in point during an MLS broadcast we will get hundreds of reminders that an important college football game is taking place on ESPN, but no reminders on ESPN during the college football game that there is an MLS game on ESPN 2 (i know , because ive tuned in to see if it went both ways.) If you are not a fan of MLS you would not know that the MLS broadcasts are being shown on Thursday Night, the broadcasts come on the air without any build up or hype during the week whatsoever, and once the game is over the results are never talked about at all on Sports Center. With the myriad of sports talk shows and sports analysis shows on ESPN and EPSN 2 does the network even have a weekly soccer show, let alone a weekly MLS wrap up show? Aside from the commentators and studio hosts whose job it is to work on the thursday night MLS broadcasts, are there any ESPN on the air pundits that are even willing to give soccer the time of day?

    I could go on but what would be the point? ESPN paid to be the public tv face of the league, to be its standard bearer—if the league is not getting the tv exposure it wants, then besides blaming the league,ESPN must also take a good hard look at itself and the way it markets soccer in this country in general and MLS soccer specifically.

  2. If ESPN is not going to see the potential, is their loss.

    MLS could be extremely successful in America if they focus on immigrants. Please name one person who came from a different country who doesn't like soccer and wouldn't like to have the opportunity to watch live soccer every weekend…

    I think MLS is wasting too much time targeting the wrong crowd…

  3. kkfla737 says:

    The casual sports crowd will never buy into MLS. They for the most part will never buy into soccer. As I discussed in my article earlier this week much of this has to do with the orientation and biases of the sports media in this country and the impact they have in shaping the opinion of mindless sports fans nationally who cannot think for themselves. That's why immigrant, and particularly latino, african and asian immigrants have to be the focus.

  4. Lenin says:

    “That's why immigrant, and particularly latino, african and asian immigrants have to be the focus.”

    go job Sherlock , that's what ESPN is doing now , last time I saw sportcenter they cut away to ESPN Deportes to relay soccer news , how alianting is that to the millions of Americans that love the sport , Well I guess you must be from Europe or Latin America to understand this game, besides the only reason ESPN took the rights to MLS was because FIFA won't sell the rights to the WORLD CUP with out helping MLS get a broadcast deal. LOOK soccer FANS are soccer fans and they will always be ESPN needs to expose the game more and that is more than just showing a game on Thursday night, and god forbid the is is a WNBA going on thats going into over time , that crap.

  5. eplnfl says:

    ESPN like the MLS has to resolve how to align the MLS. Will the league and it's coverage adopt a English model to attract the EPL fans out there or will the league and MLS adopt a Latin/Mexican model to attract the vast and growing fans of the Mexican league. While it maybe be tempting and easier to make the coverage and the league a EPL clone in the long the Latin style of football will win out. American's are attracted to a fast pace wider open game. While those of who admire the hard hitting English game, it is the movement and the up tempo that American's want to see in it's sporting action. The 4 corner offense is not to suited to the North American viewer.

    Once the league has decided how to structure itself ESPN will follow and it would love to steal some of the audience that the Mexican league has.

  6. DCCavalier says:

    I like the article, but I think a point that is missed is ESPN really didn't pay for MLS rights because they were interested in in MLS. They were interested in US rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup and those rights are in essence owned by the people who own MLS and ABC/ESPN took MLS as part of those rights.

    Watch what happens in 2010 in how the networks advertise World Cup in contrast to MLS.

    If MLS is to gain importance with the larger American sporting public, hence the American media, they need to be open to doing some American type of things to package itself better.

    To have the game played like they do in the rest of the world may make the “traditional soccer fans” that are ok with 0-0 ties, or yearn for the referee to be the only one that knows the true time, or even want to see a system of relegation, but if the league truly wants to appeal to Joe Six-Pack, they need to tweaks some of the things of the field.

    I see no problem with playing overtime, or having a shootout of PK's to decide ties, having a scoreboard in the stadium be the official clock of the game like in US sports. Also consideration should be given to shortening the calender of the season to include more mid week games but end the season before it gets too cold or there is a competition with more sports.

    Its interesting that since Don Garber came in and decided to make the game look like it does elsewhere by getting rid of the scoreboard clock and shootout, the attendance , and coverage in the media from those first four seasons has never gotten back to that point.

  7. Pingback: FOX Steals UEFA C.L. Rights from ESPN | Football Parade!

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