SBJ/March 5-11, 2012/In-Depth

Soccer's new stage

For NBC the script is twofold: Tell the story of Major League Soccer while building the stature of its NBC Sports Network.

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Mark Abbott loved this year’s Super Bowl. Not because of Eli Manning’s heroics, but because of what he saw in NBC’s pregame and postgame shows: promotions for Major League Soccer. For Abbott, the president of MLS, feeling proud as a peacock is a mighty fine thing indeed.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber (left) and NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller announce their television deal last year.
Photo by: ICON SMI
The Super Bowl promos marked the start of what network and league executives say will be an aggressive campaign to build the sister NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus) with soccer and hockey as the anchor tenants. For MLS, the allure is having not just a new television home, but also the rest of the NBC Universal portfolio, including the flagship NBC over-the-air network.

MLS signed with NBC last summer for three years, starting with the 2012 season. Industry sources estimate the deal is worth $10 million annually.

Terms call for NBC Sports Network to show 38 regular-season MLS games, with three more shown on NBC, the most on English-language U.S. network television in a decade. Five playoff games, plus four U.S. men’s national games, are also part of the 50-game package, though how those will be divided between NBC Sports Network and NBC remains undetermined.

Fox Soccer controlled the portion of the MLS media rights that NBC acquired. ESPN, a league partner since MLS launched in 1996, will air 21 regular-season matches split among ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, as well as the all-star game and MLS Cup. Univision has Spanish-language rights. All three MLS TV contracts expire after the 2014 season. (TSN has Canadian rights through 2016.)

Some significant elements of NBC’s coverage plans still lack details. For play-by-play duties, NBC hired Arlo White, who covered the Premier League for BBC Radio before becoming the voice of the Seattle Sounders. Analysts, likely to be former players, have yet to be announced. Executive producer Sam Flood and Pierre Moossa, an associate producer on “Sunday Night Football,” will set the tone for the telecasts.

NBC’s coverage begins March 11 with a match between FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls.
“They will give it its own voice, its own look,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “They will be true to the sport. They will take an awful lot of input from the MLS and from soccer fans and from soccer aficionados as to what the fan is really looking for here. It will be much like our NHL coverage: geared towards the fan and making them feel part of the game.”

Expect pregame and postgame previews and recaps of about 10 minutes each for all of the matches. Those segments have been built in to the allotted air time for MLS games, the network said.

MLS “left money on the table” by accepting NBC’s offer, Miller said. The league did so for good reason, he said, because NBC’s blend of strong storytelling and combination of 20 TV networks and 40 digital networks can give the sport cachet and exposure few can match.

Abbott is counting on those benefits.

MLS regular-season ratings trends
MLS averaged 291,000 viewers for regular-season matches in the 2011 season across ESPN and ESPN2, up 15 percent from an average of 253,000 viewers in 2010. MLS also saw gains on Fox Soccer in the 2011 season, averaging 70,000 viewers for its 27 telecasts, up from 53,000 viewers the previous two seasons.
MLS viewership on ESPN/ESPN2
SEASON TELECASTS VIEWERS (000s)
2011 20 291
2010 25 253
2009 26 299
MLS viewership on Fox Soccer
SEASON TELECASTS VIEWERS (000s)
2011 27 70
2010 31 53
2009 34 53

Notes: Figures exclude All-Star Game, World Football Challenge matches and friendlies involving MLS teams.
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research

“The NBC Sports Group is legendary for their story-building,” he said. “You see that in all of the sports properties they have. They’re going to apply that skill and that approach to building people’s awareness of the stars in Major League Soccer.”

David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry give NBC a solid foundation of star players, but executives want to help create more household names. Miller mentions the approach used in the network’s long-running Olympics coverage, a signature style of athlete profiles both famous and infamous for gauzy, heart-tugging angles.

Executives on both sides hope to increase interest in MLS this summer with not just the style of the Games, but also the substance. NBC Sports Network will show a number of Olympic soccer matches from London, providing a natural tie-in for MLS games. Even better, four to five MLS matches will be immediately preceded by Olympic soccer.

Coverage begins March 11 on NBC Sports Network with a match between FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls. NBC and NBC Sports Network will close the regular season Oct. 27 with a tripleheader.

For NBC, adding MLS games satisfies a basic demand for content as the converted Versus begins its push for a broader audience. NBC Sports Network now reaches 76 million homes. ESPN and ESPN2, by comparison, are in just under 100 million homes.

“To some degree, it reminds me of the early days of ESPN2 when they virtually built the network with NHL games,” said Mike Trager, a sports media consultant. “I think the NHL and MLS provide NBC with foundation programming until they can access more traditional opportunities that may arise in the future with football, baseball and basketball.”

Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in February. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
In 2012, the NBC family of networks replaces Fox Sports as an MLS television partner. How will this new partnership affect the sport's long-term growth?
Major positive effect 20%
Minor positive effect 45%
No effect 27%
Not sure / No response 8%
In your opinion, which of the following potential MLS All-Star Game formats would draw the most attention to the event?
MLS All-Stars vs. an English Premier League team 55%
MLS All-Stars vs. U.S. national team 14%
MLS All-Stars divided into two teams (e.g.: East vs. West, U.S. stars vs. international stars, etc.) 13%
MLS All-Stars vs. a team from a league other than EPL 3%
Not sure / No response 15%
Last fall the Columbus Crew, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Columbus Clippers launched a co-promotional marketing campaign. Will other MLS teams pursue similar marketing concepts in 2012?
Yes, a handful of teams will go this route 56%
No 16%
Yes, many teams will go this route 5%
Not sure / No response 23%
Source:Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
Last year, NBC expanded its NHL relationship with a 10-year contract extension before pursuing MLS.

Having soccer could also help the network cultivate the next generation of its audience. The latest ESPN Sports Poll of American fans found surging interest in pro soccer, particularly among people between the ages of 12 to 24.

Miller, the NBC executive, said soccer appeals to a target audience of adults ages 18 to 49, but also resonates with audiences much younger and older. MLS sponsors Adidas and Pepsi are among the likely advertisers on NBC’s various broadcasts, network officials said. Executives declined to discuss rates and sales targets, but said they are pleased with the initial response.

In the weeks and months ahead, MLS ads and promotions are planned across the NBC Sports portfolio, including Golf Channel, NBCSports.com and regional sports networks. Five teams (the Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire and D.C. United) have regular-season TV contracts with Comcast-owned NBC Sports Group RSNs.

NBC points to a range of positive business trends as proof the MLS is ready for prime time. Start with a boom of soccer-specific stadiums built or renovated in recent seasons, including Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City last year. In May, Houston opens a 22,000-seat, $95 million stadium for the Dynamo. NBC Sports Network will air the first game from the new stadium May 12. Last week, San Jose won approval to build a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium.

Fourteen of the soccer-specific stadiums have naming-rights agreements. In December, BBVA Compass put its name on the Houston stadium, a deal worth a reported $20 million over 10 years. Similarly, all but a handful of the franchises have sold jersey sponsorships. Barbasol shaving cream became the latest addition, recently signing with the Columbus Crew for five years.

Last season, attendance across the league increased by 7.2 percent, to 17,872, on average, according to MLS. The league had 18 clubs in 2011. This season Montreal enters as the 19th franchise.

Despite the recent gains, NBC’s Miller urges patience.

“We feel that it’s going to take some time to build it up,” he said. “We’ve got to get people used to coming to NBC Sports Network to watch soccer, just like we had to with hockey on Versus. Over time, we’ll do a good job and build this brand up.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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