World Soccer Talk

How things could have been so different if MLS had continued on NBC Sports

There’s no doubt that NBC Sports has transformed the fortunes and perception of the Premier League in the United States, but it is often forgotten NBC Sports actually acquired the rights to show Major League Soccer (MLS) for three seasons from 2012-2014 before they acquired the US’ Premier League rights.

NBC’s coverage of MLS was outstanding enough to win plaudits from fans and media, but as the US-based top flight league approaching its nineteenth season, MLS executives were — according to a World Soccer Talk source — demanding a massive increase in the rights fees to broadcast the domestic league, which were nowhere in line with the poor TV ratings the league were generating across all nationwide broadcasters. The math simply didn’t add up for NBC Sports, so the network decided to take a pass before the 2015 season began.

In hindsight, did MLS make the correct decision in overvaluing the TV rights for the league instead of focusing on long-term growth with a world-class broadcaster that “got” soccer?

MLS shifting away from NBC Sports was in retrospect unfortunate. The type of hard-hitting, no holds barred discussions you see on NBC’s Premier League coverage are generally lacking on FOX’s MLS’ telecasts. Bumper programs so important to the engagement of fans for all sporting events would be well-produced on NBC and create a certain degree of controversy. If MLS was still with NBC, more tactically focused fans would be engaged in MLS and it would improve the image of the league.

Where we are now

Currently a stigma has developed about Major League Soccer among those who prefer the European and particularly the English game in the United States. But the types of cross-promotion for MLS that could have occurred during Premier League matches, as well as an effort to to discuss things in more tactical and strategic ways than on FOX would have benefited the league and almost certainly in time could have helped win over skeptics.

But if the league had remained on NBC Sports, it is conceivable that an integration of MLS fans with those of European football would have been more seamless. Today, with FOX’s patronizing attitude toward fans which might be reflective of a deep-seeded insecurity about MLS’ overall place in the world club soccer landscape, fans of the US top-flight league seem as distant and hostile as ever toward large elements of the global game and the fans of foreign clubs.

While ESPN’s broadcast crews around MLS are outstanding, the allotment of time on the network is hit or miss. Taylor Twellman, in particular continues to be an exemplary co-commentator capable of linking MLS with the world game while not talking down to an audience or blatantly cheerleading for the league. But as the current eight-year media rights deal has worn on, it is FOX’s tenor that has won the day among MLS fans, creating further divisions within the fractured soccer community in the United States.

The addition of Jon Champion as lead MLS commentator on ESPN this season is a welcome addition that will add credibility to the league. Similarly, the appearances, though infrequent of Max Bretos for bigger events elevates the quality of ESPN’s product.

But the reality of ESPN continues to be pretty straightforward. Major League Soccer has often times simply disappeared into the ESPN family of networks programming catalog without much consideration for promotion. As good as the product is that ESPN produces, promotion is limited and while ratings have grown marginally since the start of this eight-year rights cycle, it’s also very possible NBC could have grown the product more aggressively and effectively, complimenting ESPN’s good work but limited bandwidth to spend on the league.

How could things have been different with NBC?

Let’s start with Arlo White.

Arlo White’s role as NBC’s voice of MLS before shifting to the Premier League in 2013 probably could have continued to attract fans of the game to MLS, if let’s say he called a few matches during the summer months for NBC, when the Premier League is in its closed season. White has an uncanny ability to connect with European football fans because of his accent and knowledge while presenting matches in a very Americanized style that relies heavily on storytelling and colorful anecdotes.

White’s style grates on some traditional football watchers who prefer less talking during broadcasts. However, the former BBC and Seattle Sounders announcer demonstrated in the early days of the Premier League being on NBC an uncanny ability to educate less knowledgeable fans during broadcasts. White did the same when he called MLS on NBC but at that point in time the crossover appeal of the league was limited and the network did not have Premier League rights.

Meanwhile, the excellent John Strong who called games for NBC in 2013 and 2014 and actually did some Premier League work would have potentially stayed with the network as the lead commentator, with White broadcasting special events. Strong is one of the real assets FOX has in its MLS arsenal currently, and probably would have been even more effective as part of an enhanced NBC production.

NBC’s studio shows, as demonstrated in coverage of the Premier League, can shape audience perceptions and inform as well as entertain. When NBC previously aired MLS, it was more of a niche product than it is today, and it can be assumed NBC’s coverage would have grown with the league had they remained a broadcast partner.

In addition, NBC’s level of promotion for the Premier League during other NBC Sports programming indicates a commitment level that ESPN doesn’t have to soccer in general. NBC likely could have penetrated more mainstream American sports fans to watch MLS – something the league has long desired but largely struck out at doing consistently. While one-off broadcasts particularly when involving Atlanta United attract fans of other sports, the consistent level of fandom for MLS on national TV remains relatively low.

MLS has grown in stature the last few years. The quality of play is noticeably improved from when NBC televised the matches. However, FOX’s tenor, which reflects the clannishness and defensiveness of MLS fans for many years doesn’t reflect a new confidence the league should have nor does it communicate effectively with core soccer fans who might be intrigued by the uptick in MLS’ quality.

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What has resulted is two separate tracks for English-language dominant soccer viewers in the US. Those watching the Premier League have gravitated to NBC while MLS fans and those of the US Men’s National Team have remained largely in a separate ecosystem. Social media is dominated by the two sides taking shots at each other.

Meanwhile, NBC with its superior coverage of soccer has not had to really tackle the issues of the US Men’s National Team or MLS. NBC’s more critically focused and effective coverage could have helped shape the debate about the domestic game in a clearer way.

The net result of NBC broadcasting MLS likely would have been better promotion and less clannishness around soccer fans in the US. Alas, we will never know how it might have played out had NBC continued into this current media rights cycle as an MLS partner.