SBJ/20090921/This Week's News

MLS Cup to appear in prime time on ESPN, opposite ‘Sunday Night Football’

For the first time in its 14-year history, the MLS championship game will be televised on cable, rather than broadcast television.

ESPN will carry MLS Cup 2009 on Nov. 22 at 8:30 p.m., where it will be opposite the highly rated “Sunday Night Football” on NBC.

Previously games aired Sunday afternoons on ABC.

Executives from both the league and the network decided to move the match to ESPN so that it could start later at its West Coast site, Seattle’s Qwest Field. They believe a later start will enhance the in-stadium atmosphere, which should make it more appealing on television.

The Sunday evening prime-time slot is not available on ABC, which has a highly rated block of entertainment programming, including “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Desperate Housewives.”

“[We] decided to make this move to allow us the opportunity to play the game later in the day,” MLS President Mark Abbott wrote in an e-mail. “MLS Cup had traditionally taken place during the early afternoon on Sunday, and we collectively decided to move it to the evening.”

ESPN and MLS officials say they have not yet decided whether the 2010 game will be on ABC or ESPN, saying this year’s decision was made given the specific circumstances of having a West Coast city host the match.

“We have the flexibility within the partnership to try different things,” said Scott Guglielmino, vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN. “We’re going to continue to do that.”

With the regular season coming to a close, network and league officials say they are happy with the slight uptick in viewership. Through 20 games on ESPN2, MLS is averaging a flat 0.2 cable rating compared with last year, but its average of 292,000 viewers represents a 7 percent audience increase over last year’s 272,000 viewers through 19 games. Executives caution that they still don’t have enough data to determine whether the league’s move away from a dedicated Thursday night telecast has been successful.

“In general, we’re happy,” Guglielmino said.

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