ESPN’s Primetime MLS Thursday games failed to attract the viewership hoped by the network. Today the network announced that it is shelving the Thursday Primetime package and will mix MLS games on multiple days during the week much as it did prior to paying for the MLS rights in 2006.From 1996 to 2005, MLS bought time on ESPN and ABC. The dates and times of games aired on the Disney networks in those days varied.
The network made very little effort to promote the package. As we discussed on this site a little over two months ago the ratings for MLS matches stink. No other adjective can be objectively used to describe the lack of viewership for league on prime time cable television.
However, ESPN seems to be as much a culprit in this unfortunate situation. MLS ratings as described in our November piece have consistently declined on ESPN since 1998. The idea of placing games on Thursday night, often the most crowded date on the mainstream sports calender in the United States and also a huge night for prime-time network TV was always going to be a mistake. MLS is not established enough as a product to survive such competition.
Additionally, very little effort to promote the league was made on ESPN programs, even on soccer programs which focused on European Football particularly the English Premier League. It is little secret that ESPN plans to bid on the rights to the Premier League in Europe and possibly the UK in the upcoming round of bids, but a run at FSC and Setanta’s North American rights are also possible.
Conspiracy theorists who claim ESPN bought the MLS rights simply because SUM (the marketing arm of MLS) had shrewdly purchased the TV rights to FIFA events in North America until 2014 will continue to chatter after this revelation. However, ESPN has repeatedly stated it has high hopes for MLS, but perhaps its expectations were too high too soon.
It’s tough to sugarcoat what has happened. MLS did fail on Thursday Night’s. But the failure provides an opportunity for MLS to hone it fan base and recapture some of the TV audience it lost between 1998 and 2008. Many of these fans still support MLS and either watch games on Direct Kick or go to games themselves. But the amount of competition both from domestic sports and European Football have undermined MLS TV appeal. This may provide an opportunity for MLS to rebuilld its brand for television.