As we go through this first season of Major League Soccer’s contract with NBC Sports, we’ve read many a story about the way that the league has received increased exposure (here’s one). The move from FOX Soccer to NBC Sports Network (and NBC to a lesser extent) constituted a fundamental change the number of matches shown, and how many people have access to that action.
It’s clear that FOX Soccer has a limited distribution in the United States, while NBCSN has continued to gain traction through its extensive coverage of the Olympics. We’ve seen the minor tiff between FOX and MLS over the spring-to-fall schedule issue, though why should MLS even listen when FOX seemed unwilling to produce original creative content for the league?
NBC Sports Network recently began a series called MLS 36, a spinoff of the NHL 36 documentary series they have run about pro hockey in North America. Their first episode followed leading goal scorer Chris Wondolowski for 36 hours, and the second centered around Fredy Montero in the hours before the US Open Cup final. The show has been airing directly after MLS matches on the network, and while its unclear how it’s doing from a ratings standpoint, it can’t hurt the league’s image. And when you go from being treated as an afterthought to getting real promotional efforts from a network, that’s a clear upgrade in stature.
And the news seems to get better for MLS. According to reports from a subscriber newsletter, DirecTV will move NBC Sports Network from channel 603 to channel 220 in September 2012. For those of us who are dedicated soccer fans subscribing to DirecTV, we are used to rummaging up around the 600′s to find FOXSoccer and GolTV (channel 620 on DirecTV will soon become beInSportUSA if you haven’t heard, covering La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1). For the casual fan who hangs out around the low 200′s where ESPN’s networks reside, this could potentially be a major boost in profile and exposure.
I imagine that the National Hockey League played a significant part in NBCSN’s move to the lower reaches, but MLS can absolutely reap the benefits of this jump. September and October hold 9 matches slated to be aired on NBCSN, plus 5 combined on ESPN and ESPN2. There will also be 3 matches on the flagship NBC network. What a chance for the league to appeal to the casual fan and try to win over some new viewership.
And think about it this way – September and October are also a time for college football on Saturdays. If there’s ever been a time I’ve been flipping around channels during commercials looking for live action, it’s during the college football season. There are so many offerings on, and the commercials become irritating. It may be a stretch to rely on this type of remote-control ADD, but it has to have a better chance of working than airing on a network that only hardcore soccer fans frequent (or even have access to in many cases).
Now it’s not all good though. The Summer Olympics have been a grand spectacle, and the top dog is the Opening Ceremony. There were many appearances by David Beckham in the festivities, yet NBC failed to even mention his employer once. Fortunately for the league, it has received some press in the form of the Honduran U-23 team. Roger Espinoza, Jerry Bengston, Mario Martinez, and Andy Najar are all MLS players who contributed to the Honduran effort at the Olympics, dispatching Spain and giving Silver Medal winners Brazil a run for their money in the quarterfinals.
It will continue to take time, but I think the prospects for MLS’ growth are much brighter in their current situation. So let’s get ready for the stretch run here in 2012. With a second network starting to give serious coverage to the league with improved distribution to many households, popularity should continue to improve for MLS.