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New MLS TV deal hasn’t lived up to its billing yet


We’re two months into the 2015 Major League Soccer season, and it’s tough to say that the league’s new TV deal has done much to live up to the billing.

Last year brought a lot of excitement as MLS locked down time slots on Sunday’s at 5pm and 7pm with ESPN and FOX, respectively. Additionally, Univision Deportes committed to Friday night matches every week, even going so far as to provide English language commentary on the SAP feed.

The steady diet of domestic soccer was supposed to provide stability and a destination for viewers to frequent every weekend. And it has, for those who have gone looking for it.

So what may be some of the issues with the coverage thus far?

Teams Featured: The teams that have been selected most often to be on the national broadcasts haven’t been optimal. It’s understandable for the league to want to create buzz about the two expansion teams, as New York City FC and Orlando City SC have both appeared five times. The other team that’s appeared five times thus far? The Chicago Fire.

On the other hand, the top four teams in the league have shown up much less – Dallas (three), Vancouver (zero), DC (two), and New England (three).

Goals Lacking: Coincidentally, the three teams that have appeared five times are all clicking at less than a goal scored per game. This past weekend at least produced some goals for viewers, with Dallas and Seattle both leading the way.

But MLS has a reputation for physicality and a lack of quality in attack, leading to more traditional “Route 1” play. That’s soccer for you, but when you’re up against the NBA and NHL Playoffs, it would be tough sledding even if you fielded FC Barcelona’s XI.

Univision Deportes Broadcast Quality: Ramses Sandoval and Paul Caliguiri have taken a beating on social media, and rightly so. Their calling of the matches has been gaudy and amateurish most of the time.

That circumstance makes the nonexistence of the SAP feed on Unimas in many markets a Godsend for most viewers. Non-fluent speakers are better off listening to the hum of the Spanish language broadcast than to suffer through Sandoval and Caliguiri.

And clearly it stinks to have to say that about Caliguiri, who has his place in American soccer folklore. But he needs a better play-by-play partner and to provide significantly more direction and purpose with his calling.

Overall Quality Of Play: This links into the first two points, but is different.

Montreal’s CONCACAF Champions League loss to Club America again brought the salary cap into the social media conversation, and the league must begin to realize this may be the true driving force behind so-so ratings.

The league has done a lot to bring American internationals back to the league, spending a pretty penny in the process. They’ve also given a nominal rise in the cap.

And while it’s prudent to maintain a spending limit to keep the league finances stable, MLS must begin considering whether other alternatives make more sense.

For instance, Major League Baseball uses a luxury tax setup, where overspending teams are taxed above a set threshold. The funds are then distributed throughout the other teams. This scheme would seem appropriate to consider, given the disparity in financial commitment for the teams.

Promotion: Finally, the networks don’t seem to give enough credit to soccer. It’s a sport that many millions play in America, but ESPN and FOX have never seemed to fully tap into that base. Of course the mainstream press attitudes about soccer don’t help, but those are dwindling as the old guard moves on.

This was always going to be an uphill fight for MLS, and the answer must be perseverance. The networks are invested in the sport at this moment, but if the product doesn’t begin to match the price tag, it won’t be pretty. MLS cries poor at the labor bargaining table, but fewer and fewer are convinced that is the case.


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  1. Patrick

    May 5, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    First remember the idea behind the consistent time slots was to create a viewing habit; cultivate an awareness that soccer is on at those times so people would eventually start tuning in not even knowing what game is on (the way they do for the NFL on Sundays and Monday nights). There is no denying the idea is solid. Habit forming takes time. Two months in is way early to judge if that has been a success. Give it a full season. I think it will have a positive impact

    Secondly, game selection has been very very poor. When i heard ESPN will be showing Chicago – Philly a couple of weeks ago, i cringed. Nothing says small time louder than a sparsely filled stadium, like the Fire’s. It is a turnoff to even hardcore MLS fans, let alone the casual viewer who, you may be sure, will click on to the next channel. Atmosphere is a huge part of the viewing experience. Show teams like Kansas City and Portland, even if they struggle. Never show the likes of Chicago and Denver and Columbus (sorry guys but your attendances are an embarrassment).

    The Spanish languages games on Friday have everything going against them. Bad day of the week and a bad slot for tv viewing. Poorly attended games, poorly produced, poorly announced. I think the late Sunday games on Fox will do best.

    Lastly, viewing will pick up once NBA and hockey playoffs and, most importantly, European soccer seasons are over. Then all MLS will have to compete with is boring, boring baseball.

  2. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    May 5, 2015 at 11:54 am

    “But MLS has a reputation for physicality and a lack of quality in attack, leading to more traditional “Route 1″ play. That’s soccer for you, but when you’re up against the NBA and NHL Playoffs, it would be tough sledding even if you fielded FC Barcelona’s XI.”

    This in a nutshell. Why watch this when there are so many more entertaining things on? But to see Barca tear up MLS would definitely draw more viewers. I could see them averaging 5-9 goals a match here.

    • Patrick

      May 5, 2015 at 12:58 pm

      “That’s soccer for you, but when you’re up against the NBA and NHL Playoffs, it would be tough sledding even if you fielded FC Barcelona’s XI.”

      Actually the big EPL games (like Chels – United) in non-prime beat the NHL playoffs in prime that same weekend. Barca games in the CL playoffs also get more viewership.

  3. Tim

    May 5, 2015 at 8:43 am

    I actually think Fox’s coverage is far better than ESPN. Numbers are not EPL/Liga MX but they are well up over years past. Overally I am not unhappy with coverage and its nice to know Sunday there are always two games.

    • Eplnfl

      May 5, 2015 at 8:54 am

      Yes it is nice to know that Sunday evening we can watch the MLS. It is a good spot in the American TV sports line-up.

    • Earl Reed

      May 5, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Personally, I think they could improve by moving Lalas back into the studio and either pairing Strong with Friedel, or beginning to groom a newer color commentary voice.

      • Tim

        May 5, 2015 at 11:06 am

        It would not be bad. I like Lalas in the studio better. He askes tuff questions and is opinionated which gets people going and I think its a good thing even if he is off a bit at times.

  4. Eplnfl

    May 5, 2015 at 6:44 am

    I think a point made by Kartik in a piece about the NASL ESPN deal has turned out to be true. That is having a Friday/Sunday national TV schedule seems to lead to a disjointed presentation. A Saturday national game may well be necessary.

    The Sunday doubleheader is good idea yet is the timing just a bit off. Should the second match start at 9:00pm EST?

  5. ribman

    May 4, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    excellent synopsis -mostly matches my own thoughts from viewing – it’s like they have been told to drum up excitement by overselling any actions, the choice of games is completely mystifying and counter to the philosophy of every other major sport’s TV strategy, exciting teams, big stars. I want to see all the teams, don’t have to see the Galaxy or Seattle every week but I also am not watching the freaking Chicago Fire every week. Just suffered through a live viewing at Sporting Park- shocking 1-0 final- the expansion teams may have star power but they play crappy boring soccer and have no team flow yet

  6. Kei

    May 4, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    What are the overall viewership numbers like, particularly in comparison to last year’s?

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