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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