Television, MLS, and The Snake Exhibit

In the relatively short span that I’ve being a fan of MLS, I have grown to consider the television coverage of MLS to be like the Snake Exhibit at your local zoo: isolated, thought of in a wide variety of fashions from cool to ambivalent to disgusting, and lacking the level of interaction that allows the observer to experience first-hand what is to be offered.

I know that’s a stretch, but networks like ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel have treated MLS like an afterthought in my opinion.

If you look at the major sports in America, all have at least one of what I would label a “feature network.” Baseball has FOX and ESPN, the NBA is on ABC/ESPN. NHL, Versus. College basketball, CBS. For the NFL, it is such a popular product that it has three networks that devote extensive coverage (CBS, FOX, and ESPN). And each have auxiliary networks that devote fewer resources and tend to simply broadcast games (for instance, baseball has TBS).

My observation in watching the second half of last season is that MLS has no feature network, but instead two auxiliary networks. In that timeframe, I watched a number of MLS games on ESPN2 and FSC. I would characterize the coverage as “drive-by” coverage. They show the game, but do very little to promote the product outside of the match at hand. It’s as if they view MLS as a flawed product, and are only doing it a favor to give the appearance that they care about domestic soccer.

Let’s take NASCAR as an example of a sport on the fringe that saw a huge gain in popularity throughout the last decade. In the 80’s and 90’s, ESPN treated it in an auxiliary, race-to-race fashion without much build-up prior to the race. In that stretch, stock car racing had an small-but-intense fan base, much like MLS does now. When FOX purchased the rights to broadcast NASCAR, it ramped up its exposure with pre- and post-race analysis and features. They also brought in fan-friendly drivers such as Darrell Waltrip to provide colorful commentary during the event. It was a risk that allowed FOX, and ultimately NASCAR, to expand the fan base, an in turn reap huge financial benefits. And all for a sport that features cars driving 300 times around an oval track with the occasional wreck. Please convince me that’s more exciting than a soccer match.

In looking at the MLS schedule, there is a period around Independence Day where ESPN2 takes an aggressive approach and shows 4 games in the span of three days. In my opinion, the network that purchases additional rights should be held to a standard that rivals that July 2-4 stretch. FSC’s Premier League coverage includes games at 10 AM and 12:30 PM, plus a full complement of  pre and post-match analysis. Additionally, they show another game on Sunday morning. Why couldn’t such an aggressive broadcast regimen be devoted to MLS? My belief is that the product would draw the ratings, if they did it right.

What do you think? Is this a demand that MLS can afford to make? Am I off-base in my characterization of the coverage devoted to MLS in 2010? My opinion is that, as long as MLS allows networks to relegate it to back-burner coverage, its growth will be stunted. At some point a network has to take a chance and feature the sport. Until a risk is taken similar to FOX’s gamble on NASCAR, the sport will continue to find difficulty making headway in the market.

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