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.

56 thoughts on “The Need For Broader Exposure: MLS On NBC Sports”

  1. I must be one of the few people who have access to FSC but not to Versus, however the idea of even 1 MLS game on one of the Big Four Networks is very cool. I’ll be interested to see which games they get (I would bet that 1 will be LA-NY and the other is PDX-SEA) on NBC, but if NBCS (which is what I’m calling them) can even fractionally compete with ESPN this has the potential to be the Don’s crowning achievement.

  2. You have to wonder what NBC is going to do next summer during the Olympics when they are using all of there affiliates to show all the different events and the Summer Olympics has a lot more events than the Winter Olympics. The MLS has most of its nationally televised games on in the 8 to 10 pm range on Saturday or Sunday. That is when NBC is going to be showing the Prime Olympic events because they don’t show most events live but on delay.

  3. I am not a NASCAR fan or viewer but I would hardly call it a fringed sport. I would argue that car racing and golf are more popular than MLS. Over the last 20 years the popularity of NASCAR has increased dramatically. I recently read it has the second highest TV viewing audience right behind the NFL. Especially when you look at most of the drivers are no longer from the southeast, most are from California. I am not sure if NBC is the answer for MLS. Overall the 3 networks have struggled against cable outlets for viewership. For example network news is almost dead with most of the viewers over 60 years of age. Fox and ESPN have been such a dominate force in sports television in the last 10 years or so. I guess in the end time will tell.

      1. I can’t remember in my life time that golf was ever a fringe sport. Yes, NASCAR was a regional sport but not in the last 20 years. I think he could have phrased the idea in a better fashion. However, pointed noted.

        1. When Jack stopped being dominant and Tiger was yet to win a Major, Golf drifted away. It’s entering that stage again now that Tiger is becoming more obscure.

          Meanwhile stockcar racing has been stagnate/drifting downward. The ratings have been down, sponsorship is down, it should return back to its lower echelon on the sports scene. The issue is that Golf and NASCAR (and to an extent baseball) have the oldest average age of viewers meaning that there is poor future fan growth.

  4. For the record, Wimbeldon has left NBC for ESPN starting next year. That price tag 12 years 800 million. I think NBC got the deal of the century with MLS.

    1. It’s actually a great risk reward. If NBC wants their investment back they need the product to work. If NBC can turn the games and players into marketable properties they will have indeed gotten the deal of the century. Also, let’s remember that it was “the NBA on NBC” that launched the NBA into sports marketing juggernaut that it is today. I’ll be interested to hear a promo which lauds “Brek Shea and FC Dallas take on Freddy Adu and the Philadelphia Union tonight on MLS on NBC Sports” or whatever they call it.

      By the way does Fox Soccer have exclusive rights to the Soccer Night in America title? If not it would be interesting to see what NBC does with that formaat.

    2. I was unaware that Wimbledon’s rights were purchased by ESPN. It has been such a staple of their offerings since I was a child. I guess its no surprise that NBC is looking to bolster their content if they are losing certain chips.

  5. MLS needs a consistent weekend schedule. A set time for a Friday night game and perhaps a doubleheader of regional coverage on Saturdays would be ideal. Or a doubleheader every Friday night. I really don’t care. But it would be nice if every single Friday or Saturday or Sunday during the MLS regular season, I could tune in at a specific time and know there was going to be an MLS game on. That is a huge part of what has made the NFL a runaway success on TV and anything MLS can do to emulate that is a good idea in my opinion.

    1. That’s something else I’ll be interested to see. Will fans in Seattle, LA, Portland, and Vancouver show up for a game that is 5:00 PST for an 8:00 EST kickoff? Will NBC Sports have any input on the MLS schedule? I would imagine the two regular season games that would play on regular network NBC probably be Los Angeles-New York, Portland-Seattle, or possibly New York Red Bulls-New York Cosmos (if that dog and pony show happens), will NBC have top pick over ESPN as to which games get carried by which network?

      1. quick answer to the 5pm west coast game time . . . speaking for LA . . . won’t happen. consider that many people have to leave their jobs 2 hours before gametime to have a butt in the seat before the clock starts ticking; it just isn’t an option.

        i am a season ticket holder for the G’s, and if they started having weekday games any earlier than 8pm (with frequency), i could consider cancelling my season seats . . . as they are basically throw-aways. i will add, i am sure that i am not the only one who thinks this way.

      2. West coast fans show up for 8:30 PM EST kickoff times for NFL Monday night games every year. I don’t really see why MLS fans have to be treated differently. Or you could simply run a double header on Friday nights with an eastern game and a western game. Or play more Saturday games. It seems like every time, a positive development happens for MLS on the TV front, fans are worried that it make it a tiny bit harder for them to attend games.

    2. Agreed, I have been watching the NFL games at the same time on the same day of the week for 40 years. 40 years.

      You know when you team plays. No need to look at the schedule. Eastern game or Western game ?

  6. Also, to the guy who was wondering what this means for the MLS during the Olympics: it means that MLS coverage will disappear on NBC during the Olympics. They paid $10M/year for MLS. They paid billions for the Olympics. Olympics are going to trump the MLS every time.

    1. In the press conference I attended, Jon Miller of NBC seemed to hint that MLS would get air time during the Olympic run in 2012. Whether this was truly their intention or just some lip service remains to be seen.

      But let’s put it this way: NBC is the main outlet for Olympic coverage. On a Saturday, when they have a serious window for airing live events from London from 8 AM – 6 PM EDT(1 -11 PM British time), a Saturday night MLS match at 8 PM EDT on NBC Sports Network wouldn’t be out of the question. That’s me giving a logical reason why they could promise MLS coverage during the 2 Week Olympic run, I’m not saying it will work that way.

      1. If the past is any indicator, they’ll use that primetime block to run a highlights package and/or delayed coverage of the day’s biggest events, which is their single biggest draw and basically saved NBC last go round. That’s what they did during China.

        Now, a late night MLS game on weeknights during the Olympics would seem to be a possibility. But of course the single most important thing they could do would be to give the MLS some serious promotion during their Olympic coverage.

  7. This could be a water shed moment for Major League Soccer. Just image if you had a nice double header with the New York Red Bull vs. New York Cosmos on Saturday night prime time. I also hope that the NBC Sports Network, would add the Scottish Premier League along with the Bundesliga and the Mexican Primera Division.

    1. FMF, don’t see that happening . . . they are already broadcast in every major market (in spanish). until they see a big viewing audience of english speakers, no way they would cough up the dollars necessary to get that contract. because of the FMF value on the spanish speaking side, that will drive up the cost on the english speaking side to a point where it isn’t economically worthwhile.

      that being said, the SPL could happen . . . but i think FSC will do that first. FSC (and FS+) is geared more for the euro-snob, so you have to think they could make better use of the games / expensive contract.

      bundesliga, already under contract with golTV, so not sure how that would happen. IMO, NBC should focus on growing the MLS and USMNT coverage . . . . and leave the expensive euro contracts to FSC/FS+.

      1. I did talk to a TV exective from NBC and he said that the Sports Network is planning to expand it’s soccer coverage in the near future with the possible addition to the Scottish Premier League Bundesliga and the Mexican Primera Division.

        1. I’m a little iffy about the SPL because the only matches people care about are the Old Firm matches and those usually are pay-per-view. When Setanta was still in the states they showed the SPL but the Old Firm matches were even earlier than the 7:45am EPL kickoffs to help curb fan violence and were pay-per-view.

          I think the Mexican Primera would probably get the best viewership because of the large Mexican population in the US, but I think the league to view would be the Bundesliga. I would be cool to see the rise in popularity of the Bundesliga because of a move from GOLtv to NBC(Versus). The league is probably the best rounded league in the world. La Liga has probably 2 of the best teams in the world and the rest are meh, the EPL has a good competitive top end of the league, but the Bundesliga is on the rise, it has the highest average attendance in the world for soccer and will soon pass the EPL in total attendance. The league is very competitive and is fiscally responsible. They have cheaper ticket prices compared to the other top Euro leagues and is a good model for MLS to look at.

    2. Would definitely LOVE it if NBCSN carried the SPL. Got into that when Setanta-i (their online package) was still around and haven’t been able to follow it since they went under.

  8. I guess this is a good start. But only six games on free TV is not enough. Until I can see pro futbol as easily as I see pro football here in the United States, neither MLS or the networks are doing a good job of growing their audience.

    1. When the entire country shuts down for the MLS Cup maybe you’ll get that. Even MLB only has one regular-season game a week on national over-the-air TV, and while the NBA often has two they don’t have any before Christmas and after that they don’t have any until Super Bowl Sunday. 40-odd games a year, before factoring in the existing ESPN contract, is quite impressive for a niche league that can’t get 1% of the English-speaking audience to watch the MLS Cup.

  9. What your also forgetting is NBC us going in hard on Rugby. Since Rugby Sevens got brought back to the Olympics they have been showing Sevens tourneys, and internation Rugby Union friendlies and they actually have the rights to the Rugby World Cup this year. They will be showing matches on NBC and Universal Sport. I wish that station would go HD before the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics but that won’t happen.

  10. On a selfish level, I like that I have Versus in HD. And I don’t have Fox Soccer in HD and I have to be realllly bored to tune into MLS if it will be in standard definition. Especially since Fox Soccer’s SD is not quite up to the quality of other SD channels.

  11. From what I hear its supposes to be 6 games on national TV(FTR) assuming 6 will be the USA games and two MLS, and the Old Versus will show the rest.. also lets not forget there is universal sports and the CSN affiliates are a factor but as for nation wide games on the free tv i think its only two, assuming the all star game and MLS cup, also maybe it would be ideal for a sunday day cast, may be it helps before sunday nght football during football season.

    1. Critical point DCUDiplomat96, for example does this mean a better production value and more stability to show DC United matches on Comcast Sports Net? I would hope yes.

  12. Its not about games. IMHO, its about having a weekly recap show of all the games. Nobody has time to watch more than a few games. Even the NFL and NBA dieshards only watch a few games a week. What they do watch… the recap and highlight shows. Thats where exposure comes from.

    1. I agree. Right now we’re reporting what we’ve been told. If you listen to the press conference, NBC is claiming to have interest in supporting the league through enhanced coverage through additional programming etc. You would have to think MLS was sick of waiting for FOX Soccer to provide this. Heck, FOX Soccer has a USL highlights show, but not one for MLS. Fox Soccer Report is mediocre at best at this point, not in HD, and not particularly well produced.

      It’s tough because I have two separate but related desires. I want to see MLS get their due, but I also want to see ESPN get a run for their money. My hope is that NBC Sports Network doesn’t become this infomercial channel from 8 AM – 12 PM. They have a chance to compete with EntertainmentCenter, and all they’d have to do is just be a little less sensational with their coverage. You’ll always have the frontrunners who prefer the way ESPN sucks up to the big markets and makes themselves the news. But there’s an opportunity to return sports news to sports, and if they do it right, they could rejuvenate something that’s been lost for a long time (in my opinion).

  13. If they take a similar approach that Versus did with hockey, this will be great for MLS. Finally, hockey had a place with decent studio hosts and decent production values where it wasn’t treated like an ugly stepchild, the way ESPN does with every sport that’s not football, baseball, basketball and golf.

    However, the league has to do something about the salary structure if it wants to get serious about increasing the quality of play and bringing in more fans. I don’t want to hijack this thread, and I’m not particularly interested in Charles arguing with a random dude who hates MLS, but having greater exposure isn’t going to help if the level of play doesn’t improve.

    I also wish MLS would start playing more afternoon matches on the weekend. Conflict with college football? Who cares?

    1. As a huge college football fan, my opinion might surprise you: I couldn’t agree more.

      Baseball is just a big an attendance draw on aggregate as college football is. Yet MLS has no qualms about going head-to-head with baseball games in baseball markets (like NY) yet is so frightened of college football. If the league ever decided to stop ignoring the Southeast, that would be a market where you wouldn’t want to compete head-to-head with NCAAF and I would obviously say the same about Columbus. Otherwise, why not? Saturday games would be so much easier for fans to attend; it stops you from going head-to-head with NFL for TV viewers. It allows you to better pursue soccer fans because pretty much all the leagues that garner TV coverage in the US are played early in the morning. And it makes it easier for fans to have the whole gameday experience. In my ideal world, MLS would play a marquee game at 9 EST on Fridays and then have everyone else play on Saturday afternoons

      1. Yep, I agree (and I like college football, too).

        Also, the biggest qualms from my friends who have kids under 10 is that they can’t drag them out to the evening matches. Here in NY, anyway, you won’t get home before 10:30 or 11:00.

      2. That would be a great idea, to show one marquee game a week, pick a day that everyone knows. That way everyone knows there is a game on NBC Sports on Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu, or Fri (whichever day they choose) and the rest play out on the other days.

    2. The salary structure is something I was thinking about too when I read this story. I’d really love to see MLS’s salary cap be around $15 million, which is still drastically less than the big 4 leagues. I don’t see it happening in the next few years, but they need a way to keep some players in the league. I’d like to see them not only have a larger salary cap, but also a salary floor that would require teams to have x amount on the books for salary. However, I understand this won’t come until teams are more profitable.

  14. Something that is very good about NBC is that they have a history of resuscitating and marketing sports. ESPN has a history of poaching away products, but NBC creates/saves its products. Versus is the network that pushed MMA into the mainstream. Versus is the network that brought the NHL back from the brink of obscurity to once again being mentioned as the fourth biggest sport in America (for a time NASCAR AND the PGA were bigger). And what is often overlooked is what NBC did for the NBA. Until the premier of “the NBA on NBC” the NBA was less popular than the NHL. NBC’s marketing pushed the NBA to being bigger than the NFL and possibly bigger than baseball in the 80s with innovative marketing.

    I don’t expect this move to push MLS to the point of making it the top sport in America, but it will definitely raise the profile, and in time it could become a league at the level of at least the PGA/NASCAR/MMA.

        1. I would say it depends on where in the US you’re located. Yes states like Alabama, the Carolinas, and other southern markets are much bigger NASCAR supporters than NHL, but the huge media markets (NYC, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston) which make up the majority of viewership in the US are typically much larger supporters of NHL than NASCAR. I’m sure the big Canadian markets (Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto), which incidentally are all MLS markets as well, are also much bigger NHL than NASCAR fans.

          1. Hockey is king in Canada without a doubt. NASCAR has done very well over the years. They have successfully broken into the northeast, midwest and the western states. Less than 30% of the drivers are from the southeast. California supplies the most NASCAR drivers. I am not even a car racing fan. MLS still has a long road ahead but I think has done better than many would have thought 10 years ago. Time will tell.

  15. Earl, thanks, you are a VERY good writer.

    NBC has been searching for the void left by NFL for a long time.
    Remember the XFL ( I think that is what it was called ) ?

    I think NBC will do it up right, I have always liked NBC sports. And they do a very good job with other sports that are lesser revenues ( I don’t watch Hockey much ).

    How big it gets is really up to the demand. Cue the MLS Hater Trolls.
    IF MLS gets big, NBC will be jazzed and try to lock in for longer term and ride it, promote it and live off of it.
    IF MLS does not, see the same complaints on this site over the next 3 years….maybe a little better because it was never going to be anything on FSC.

    I don’t really care at this point. Seriously. I used to worry the league (NASL) wouldn’t make it. Deals like this show it HAS made it, it is just he degree of money making success.

    So, I am looking at $20 tickets for great seats in a $500 million stadium, watching great soccer. That goes away if it is the top league in the world.
    I hope that others start selling out their beautiful SSS stadium that they are in love with…and I am good.

    I think the quality of US Soccer will continue to skyrocket, whether anyone cares or not….so I don’t care about the fools that don’t.

  16. May we live in interesting times.

    We now have three years in which we can compare the quality of the ESPN broadcasts to those on NBCSN (and those on Univision [maybe Univision Deportes channel by then]). I think Major League Soccer Talk should do a write-up on a year-end review of the broadcast partners just so we can be better informed when it’s time to decide where the World Cup will go after 2014.

    1. I doubt Univision be much of Effect because the audience isn’t the same, NBC is a National Network, where univision focus on one demographic. What MLS has to do is invest more in Marketing the league a a true major league, not a wanna be European league.

  17. UFC has much, much more limited growth potential than soccer as a TV property (it has an audience, but bloodsports in general are declining in popularity and have zero appeal to women). NBCS got MLS and USMNT games for a pittance and Fox overpaid for UFC. Sounds like they’re making some great business decisions to me.

    1. It just seems NBC is only willing to spend money on the Olympics and Golf. I prey they can pull Bundesliga from GolTV and FMF from Fox Deportes. NBC already owns Telemundo so they could show FMF games on there as well as NBCS for the English speaking audience.

    2. Oh, and another one they should go for is the Copa America. It was sad that it was only on in SD on Univision in the US. Also NBC should get Universal Sport in HD and they could also us that station for soccer coverage.

  18. I would be stunned to see NBC one of worst managed major networks in the country covering the Bundesliga or SPL. They can’t get decent ratings for their network news, cable news or financial channel. Covering MLS is one thing and it’s yet to be determined how successful that will be but covering other major European leagues is a reach. The network channels are the past while the cable channels are the present and the future.

    1. You realize that NBC is in the process of totally rebranding themselves, right? They were just purchased by Comcast, a cable company. Your argument makes very little sense. No one is arguing that the broadcast network NBC will be carrying Bundesliga or SPL games. They are saying such leagues could possibly be carried on the new NBC Sports Network, a cable channel that is the rebranded version of Versus.

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