SBJ/20090119/This Week's News

ESPN booting MLS from its Thursday slot

Major League Soccer is not quite ready to carry its own night on TV.

After two years of anemic ratings that started low and finished lower, ESPN executives decided to cancel the league’s regular Thursday night telecast on ESPN2 this season. In its place, ESPN2 will carry an MLS game of the week, which will air on four different nights during the season. The weekly matches will occur on Thursdays (10 times), Saturdays (eight times), Wednesdays (six times) and Fridays (three times).

“We didn’t see the kind of ratings climb we’d like to, so we’re trying something different,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN vice president of programming.

The decision to cancel the regular Thursday night game marks a stunning turnaround for a league that two years ago believed it was creating destination programming that would increase interest in MLS. But even the 2007 arrival of David Beckham couldn’t boost MLS ratings.

MLS games averaged a 0.2 rating and 289,000 viewers on ESPN2 in 2007. Those numbers dropped to 0.2/253,000 viewers the following year. Its highest rating during that period was Beckham’s second regular-season game in August 2007 that earned a 0.6/658,000 households.

Canceling “MLS Primetime Thursday” is a tacit admission that MLS is not strong enough to anchor a regular prime-time slot on its own. ESPN is entering the third year of an eight-year rights deal that pays MLS $8 million annually.

“It’s not necessarily a detrimental thing for MLS,” said Derek Aframe, vice president of consulting at Octagon and former vice president of the New England Revolution. “What matters is where they stand at the end of six years when their deal is up (with ESPN).”

Venue rules kept Chivas USA off
some Thursday nights.

One reason ESPN made the move is to give the league better lead-in programming and more flexibility to telecast better matchups.

Rather than its previous lead-in — mainly taped programming — ESPN plans to program matches after college football, NIT basketball, the College World Series, motorsports and U.S. Open tennis. Promotion and marketing will be consistent with what has been provided in the past.

“(The change) works well for all parties,” said MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche. “It provides better matchups for ESPN and provides flexibility for our clubs to put these games on nights that have more people in attendance.”

MLS team executives consistently said that Thursday night games were some of the hardest to sell, and it showed during broadcasts. Many games televised on ESPN2 featured swaths of empty seats. Even though average reported attendance for Thursday night games in 2008 was 5 percent higher than average season attendance, only three Thursday night games were sellouts and on average the games were played at stadiums filled to 68 percent of capacity.

“We feel (that with more flexibility) we can provide a much larger crowd and a much more festive atmosphere for the viewer,” Courtemanche said. “That should translate to better ratings.”

ESPN also said the move will allow it to feature more of the league’s marquee teams, like Chivas USA, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo, which weren’t able to play in their venues some Thursday nights during the school year because of various restrictions. The Galaxy and Chivas have an agreement with the California State University, Dominguez Hills, where the Home Depot Center is located, that limited the number of games they could play on weeknights when school was in session.

“The two big pieces here that we want to do better are with the lead-ins (especially those early windows on the East Coast) and the flexibility to cover different teams,” Guglielmino said. “We want to grow this as quickly as possible.”

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