SBJ/August 20 - 26, 2007/This Weeks News

Flat MLS ratings not what ESPN expected

When ESPN soccer analyst Tommy Smyth got out of a taxi at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium before the recent Los Angeles Galaxy-D.C. United game, he immediately sensed an excitement that he hadn’t seen before at a Major League Soccer match.

Despite little playing time, David Beckham has
meant a slight bump in MLS ratings on ESPN.

Though the game was hours away, the joint was jumping, with thousands of soccer fans milling around the old stadium. Several immediately recognized Smyth and started bantering with him, particularly two boys who razzed him for taking a taxi to the game rather than having a driver.

Call it the Beckham Buzz. An August game against one of the worst teams in the league brought a sold out crowd to the 47,000-seat stadium, despite hot, humid weather and rainstorms and even news reports that suggested that British transplant David Beckham wouldn’t play.

ESPN officials are wishing such enthusiasm would translate into television ratings. The numbers so far this year have been flat to date, though there was a slight bump in the few games that featured the Galaxy, even with Beckham sitting on the bench.

ESPN clearly expected more in the first year of its eight-year, $64 million TV deal with MLS, especially given the regular Thursday night window and multiplatform promotional machine.

ESPN had earned a 0.2 cable rating/202,000 homes for its 14 MLS games before Beckham joined the Galaxy. That is flat with last year’s 0.2 rating/200,000 homes.

In the four games since Beckham joined the Galaxy, ESPN2 has posted a 0.3 rating/279,000 homes, even though Beckham played a combined 30 minutes in two of those games. Ratings topped out with the United-Galaxy game, which posted a 0.4/422,000 homes, doubling the yearlong average.

But the overall ratings have been so underwhelming that Tim Scanlan, ESPN senior coordinating producer, said he is mystified at the performance.

“If, before the season, you told me that we’d be at a 0.2 before Beckham, I’d tell you that I’d be disappointed,” he said. “We clearly weren’t expecting those ratings.”

Scanlan suggested that the big stories in other sports — from Barry Bonds’ home run chase to the scandals involving the NFL and NBA — could be hurting MLS ratings, preoccupying nontraditional soccer viewers and making them less willing to tune in to MLS.

But he points to August as a “tipping point” for MLS, once Beckham gets a couple of games under his belt, and he stressed that ESPN remains patient with the league and committed to expanding the sport.

ESPN’s soccer productions will continue to emphasize player personalities and statistics more than past soccer broadcasts — an approach that brought a torrent of criticism following the United-Galaxy game, when mainstream publications and soccer blogs bashed ESPN for focusing too much on Beckham, with frequent shots of the player on the bench, warming up or playing without the ball.

Scanlan said ESPN will not use the “Beckham cam” as frequently in future games. “We don’t want to create the Tiger Woods effect when it comes to Beckham, when fans think it’s not worth watching if he’s not in the game,” he said.

It’s clear, though, that ESPN is depending on Beckham to move the TV ratings needle in the same way that he is bringing fans and local media to the stadium.

Staff writer Tripp Mickle contributed to this report.

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