Media rights dominate sports, and MLS is losing the TV war in the U.S.

The last few weeks showed worrying times for Major League Soccer. First, the protracted labor disputes are still unresolved and there remains a lot of uncertainty regarding what may happen in the next few weeks. Second, ESPN announced its lead commentator team for the 2010 World Cup and not one US-born announcer was selected. And third, the number of live Premier League games shown on ESPN‘s family of networks next season will increase to 83 matches.

It’s clear that ESPN is making a major play at trying to win the hearts and minds of soccer fans who prefer to watch international soccer, specifically the Premier League. And my concern is where does Major League Soccer fit into all of this? Shouldn’t MLS executives be mad as hell that it the TV network is betting most of its chips on English soccer? An all British lead commentary crew? Almost double the amount of live Premier League games shown on TV in 2010-2011? To me, the writing is on the wall for Major League Soccer and it doesn’t look good.

USMNT tie-ins

Add to that the concern that the United States national team may exit the World Cup in the second round. Or, even worse, in the opening group. The biggest challenge Major League Soccer would then face is that there are no other MLS players who would be left in the tournament for viewers to bond with. If the same happened to England, and they got knocked out early in the tournament, there would be players from practically every country playing each night who also play in the Premier League. The net result would be that even with an early England exit, the Premier League would still be promoted each night because of it’s array of international stars.

It’s therefore imperative that the United States men’s national team do well in World Cup 2010 to help promote Major League Soccer and to produce a “World Cup effect” where millions of Americans become so excited by the games they see on television that they begin attending MLS games in larger numbers when the tournament ends in mid-July.

MLS is losing the TV war

But Major League Soccer needs to make sure that they don’t take the “World Cup effect” for granted. After the tournament ends, there will be several top European clubs traveling across the United States and playing in front of large crowds to take advantage of the massive interest. These clubs could include Manchester City and Arsenal. And undoubtedly these teams will appeal to many soccer fans in the United States because of the quantity and quality of international stars who would have just finished playing in the biggest tournament in the world.

Honestly, I don’t see Major League Soccer doing well in the soccer TV wars in the United States. Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN have already made it clear that they’re more interested in showing the Premier League than MLS. Fox’s programming tilts heavily in favor of the Premier League. We do not see the same repeat broadcasts of MLS on TV. Heck, the TV ratings on Fox for MLS are the same as for WPS. And WPS pays Fox for that airtime.

Room for hope?

The soccer landscape is not all doom and gloom for Major League Soccer. Hopefully the United States will advance deep into the tournament this summer and it’ll give MLS the opportunity to put some of its players in the spotlight and to generate more interest in the sport, the league and its players.

Honestly, though, I don’t see MLS winning the soccer TV war in the States, and that’s OK. Where MLS has an advantage is on a local level where it can give soccer fans a safe and entertaining experience in their own backyard. In cities such as Seattle, Philadelphia, San Jose, Houston, Chicago and elsewhere, why watch a ton of games on television when you go see your local MLS team play in person in front of an enthusiastic crowd and see good soccer played on the field?

Further growth

That’s what Major League Soccer’s focus needs to be. It needs to create new teams across the country in areas where MLS has no team and where there’s a large soccer fanbase. Otherwise those fans who have no MLS team near them have few reasons why they should watch MLS on TV but plenty more choices to watch games from other leagues and tournaments from around the world.

Take last night, for example. For most 9-5 employees who live on the East Coast of the United States, they would have come home Tuesday with a few choices of games to watch on television. They could have watched Columbus Crew against Toluca in the first leg quarter-final of the CONCACAF Champions League. Or, if they had taped the games, they could have watched Arsenal against Porto or Fiorentina versus Bayern Munich.

Those same decisions of which games to watch Tuesday night would have entered the minds of soccer fans in the Columbus area. Should I go to the game to see the Crew play, or should I stay home instead and watch games on television? The answer was loud and clear last night. The attendance at Crew Stadium was only 4,402 for a very important cup game. Where were the fans? Were they all watching Arsenal against Porto in the comfort of their living rooms?

MLS needs to trust that the United States men’s national team will do this country proud in the 2010 World Cup. And, if so, to accelerate the expansion of MLS teams across this country and to replicate the Seattle Sounders success story wherever possible.