The Need For Broader Exposure: MLS On NBC Sports

In an American sports landscape dominated by four primary sports (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey), Major League Soccer has always faced an uphill battle since it’s inception in the mid-90’s. Some would say that the saturation point may have been reached long ago, especially with the increased popularity of fringe sports such as NASCAR and Tiger Woods’-generation golf.

But Don Garber and MLS have survived. Yes, many point to a strict financial model that restricts competitiveness on the global scene. That would be a fair argument if money was being thrown at you from networks (and 50,000 fans) to cover your sport.  It is true that in the early days, MLS did have a network television contract with ABC, but between a lack of interest at the stadium as well as poor ratings, the league was hurting near the turn of the century. Eventually, MLS had to accept modest financial cable network deals from ESPN (and later FOX Soccer) to broadcast matches in what could often be described as “one-off” settings. Boom, here’s the game. Boom, there it goes. No coverage, no insight, and only a fractional growth for the league.

Where the league has found success is growth through the local market. Garber has focused the owners on obtaining stadiums in markets that fit MLS. Many new venues have opened, and in those parks you often find vibrant supporters’ groups and a bright base from which to build these franchises. An even more interesting case is the Seattle Sounders, who fill the lower bowl of the Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field with more than 30,000 people per match. These types of fan bases create excitement, and help to attract those who may have written the league off in previous seasons.

It is at this point where Garber, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati, and the other powers that be can begin to see the fruits of the labor. Has MLS grown to the vibrant state we’d all like to see? Of course not. That’s where this television deal can benefit.

As we stated in the post which contains audio from the MLS/USSoccer/NBC press conference last night, this reported $10 million per year deal for 3 years isn’t as lucrative as the deal that MLS may have looked for in the past from FOX Soccer. That doesn’t provide the full story, though.

With NBC merging with Comcast, it is clear that they have a network, Versus, that has lagged far behind ESPN in terms of viewership and content. The rebranding of Versus to NBC Sports Network certainly has ramifications beyond buying a few new polo shirts with a peacock logo.

NBC Sports has typically been one of the classier media entities in sports, in my opinion.  Versus, on the other hand, has less polish. The two networks are rather opposite, in fact. I’d imagine that the target demographic for Versus is probably 10-20 years younger than the typical NBC Sports fan.  The fact that NBC will rebrand Versus to incorporate its own call letters is a signal that legitimacy is important for the cable network going forward.

What remains to be seen is if NBC Sports Network intends to rival ESPN in all aspects. One point is crucial: Versus is carried in most cable and satellite packages, which will allow for the network to reach nearly as many viewers as ESPN. I, for one, am a sports fan that would love to see a direct competitor to the Worldwide Leader. Accompanying an established NHL product, MLS could provide an additional plank for NBC to begin to build a platform. If you then consider the possibilities of new programming surrounding Notre Dame football, the PGA, as well as Wimbledon, NBC Sports Network could blossom into a robust sports carrier, gaining legitimacy with fans across many generations and sports backgrounds. As the network grows and establishes itself, MLS is bound to benefit in ways far beyond what they could gain from a channel already serving the soccer niche in this country.

MLS has definitely grown. While it may not be the growth some would like to see, it has used somewhat limited media avenues to marginally grow the sport on a national level, while concentrating on invigorating a concentrated fan base in the local market. With this NBC Sports deal, MLS now has the chance to use this local popularity to expand to a broader audience. As NBC touts MLS matches in its’ 2012 Olympics coverage, fans who may not have had access to FOX Soccer through their local cable provider could instead flip to the new NBC Sports Network to catch an LA Galaxy/Real Salt Lake match. While we’ll have to wait to see if NBC Sports follows through with their declared intent, we can only hope that this marks a turn for the better in terms of media coverage of the league.

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