Why Major League Soccer Has Bigger Issues Than Just Poor TV Ratings

Major League Soccer has begun the bidding process to determine who will acquire the US media rights to the top flight domestic league. The current deal between ESPN and MLS, which was agreed in 2006, and expires next year, was packaged together with rights to home USMNT games. ESPN is currently paying less than $9 million a year for the rights. NBC, who are paying $10 million a year to show MLS games, are also in a negotiating period with MLS, but while NBC is interested in renewing, the chatter has been that NBC first wants MLS to make some changes.

In recent weeks, two excellent articles were published about MLS TV ratings (the viewing numbers this year are down considerably compared to last year). The first, entitled MLS ratings drift by The Shin Guardian blog, argues that the league needs to create consistent scheduling such as a Friday night weekly game (as well as consistent start games for games throughout each weekend of the season), institute flex scheduling (to rearrange schedules and/or TV schedules to accommodate games or teams that become hot during the season), claim a holiday (in order to have MLS put a stamp on a national holiday each year as a traditional MLS day or weekend) and fill in the gaps (when traditional American sports are not being played, and sports fans are looking for games to watch).

The second article entitled Two years later, MLS and NBC continue to make familiar mistakes, written by Yahoo contributor Zac Wassink, mentions the story of a MLS employee who was disheartened by the paltry 83,000 people who tuned into a MLS game on NBC in August despite the fact that there were no other sporting events going up against the game at that same time.

While I agree with the ideas expressed in The Shin Guardian piece, these suggestions – if embraced by MLS – would have only a slight positive impact on increasing the TV viewing audience of MLS games on US television. What these articles fail to point out is that MLS has bigger issues that need resolving that inhibit the league from producing greater TV viewing ratings that would be on par or greater than other major soccer leagues.

Thousands of words have been spent on other websites, forums and social media theorizing why MLS ratings were poor in the past. FOX Soccer was blamed for its poor production value. FOX upped their game but the ratings didn’t prosper. Many MLS fans argued that NBC would be the answer with its better production values and ability to show games on national television. However, despite better ratings than FOX Soccer (it couldn’t have gotten much worse), those vocal critics of the poor job that FOX did and how NBC would change everything are now silent.

The bottom line is that Major League Soccer is sub par to the other leagues that are available on television.

Even with a more consistent schedule, a night dedicated to a game of the week, and other changes, the fact is that it’s not going to make that much of a difference.

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