I want to begin by stating that I am a fan of the current MLS playoffs and in general I enjoy the way Major League Soccer organizes them. Like all MLS fans, I have things I love and things I hate about the current format, style of play, and presentation. Overall, the matches this year have been enjoyable and it has been a pleasure watching them on television.
That being said, it is obvious improvements need to be made: TV numbers are down and three of the four the venues had crowds under 15,000. For MLS to continue growing, it needs to use the playoffs (any American sport’s most exciting time) as a springboard for interest. The problem is of course that the playoffs occur during a congested sports time of year, and short of a drastic, FIFA-approved shift in the scheduling this will not change.
Instead, here are my ideas to help put the MLS playoffs on more Americans’ minds as well as attract viewers to the sport through the primary way we watch these matches, TV:
Hire an outsider to provide color commentary or studio analysis
I cannot speak for Telefutura, but ESPN and Fox Soccer do a good job of getting talented people in the booth who can speak intelligently about Major League Soccer (take note, NFL broadcasts). However, I think if you want to draw some attention to the broadcasts, you need to add someone to the booth or studio who knows something about soccer, but is not a soccer commentator or columnist who could change-up a broadcast.
A perfect example of this would be ESPN2 hiring (assigning? Can ESPN tell him what to do anymore?) Bill Simmons to work on the pre-game and halftime of their playoff broadcast. Simmons has a huge following and is a Tottenham fan, albeit a new and still learning soccer fan. What if Simmons tweeted that he would be co-hosting a playoff pre-game show? You would immediately have new fans who would at least tune in for a few minutes just to hear Simmons’ shtick. Imagine the Sports Guy breaking down Edson Buddle’s goal last night – it may not be tactics but it would be entertaining. If you are afraid of losing the tactics-driven soccer fan (which admittedly many of us who read this blog are) then have a three-man pre-game cast: Rob Stone, Alexi Lalas, and Simmons. That would garner some attention. And ESPN’s done it before when he and Rob Stone were the broadcast crew for an ESPN2 professional bowling event.
One small problem: He seems to not like MLS. But there’s always a chance watching a few matches could change his mind. Any other suggestions for other networks?
Shift the matches to weekday nights
There is never a good night for soccer; there is always some conflict that can be used to justify why fans will not show up. Having the playoffs during the week admittedly could hurt your crowd (it is a school night after all) and puts the sport on at a time and date when fewer people are watching television in general.
But let’s take last night’s Galaxy/Sounders match for example. It was programmed against the Sunday Night Football game pitting the last two Super Bowl champions and a pivotal game four of the World Series, as well as some hockey and basketball games. There is no room for in-depth highlights and analysis the next day. Same thing for Saturday’s two matches – they went up against #1 Oregon’s game against USC and a day full of college football. However, move the MLS playoff games to Tuesday/Wednesday, and you eliminate the football factor. Now the U.S.’s most watched sport is not a competitor for coverage. Next year the World Series will hopefully be moved to earlier in the calendar, so baseball and soccer will not conflict. In the sports world, you are then only competing with hockey and basketball.
Again, there are a lot of drawbacks and until soccer rises in the US consciousness there is no perfect timing for these matches. But weekdays would be slightly less imperfect.
Conduct More In-Game Interviews
This is something Fox has done well in their baseball and football broadcasts. In baseball, the announcers tape an interview between an inning with each manager or a coach asking questions that have come up during the game. They usually last about a minute or two and give some insight into why a decision was made or what the coaching staff was thinking. This would be hard to translate into soccer since there is no natural break except for halftime, but it would be interesting to ask a manager at the time about tactics or a particular substitution.
What would be easier and more reasonable would be having a former official on standby to ask questions throughout the match. NFL broadcasts are increasingly doing this, having a former official on standby to ask their thoughts on controversial or confusing calls to help viewers understand the game they are watching. I don’t believe either ESPN or Fox has done this for their broadcasts, including the World Cup, but having a former official or head of officials available to analyze a call would be a nice touch.
Give the announcers more caffeine
This may be the simplest change of all, and I am going to get specific on this one. JP Dellacamera’s call last night on the Edson Buddle goal was terrible. It was a stupendous goal physically but his tone suggested he had found a dollar on the floor. Harkes came across sounding impressed, but still I wish those two conveyed more emotion in the contest. Towards the end of the match, maybe a little desperation in their voices would have added to the crowd noise to match the drama that was occurring on the pitch. Overall, I like the announcing crews for these playoff games, but please show appropriate and non-biased emotion at times to help add to the moment.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments.