SBJ/June 24-30, 2013/Opinion

Why NBC’s Premier League promotion is troublesome for MLS

While gaining a 20th franchise in New York City proper is a terrific development for Major League Soccer, NBC’s pending promotion of the English Premier League has much greater potential to affect soccer in the United States. NBC’s strategy and focus also creates complicated challenges for MLS in its quest to maximize TV ratings and national relevancy.

To be sure, NBC’s investment in pro soccer is unprecedented, in effect treating the EPL like a big four U.S. sports league — except, of course, it’s not American. While the EPL will be the first soccer league to have regular coverage on both network and cable, NBC’s focus on match highlights and analysis is the more impactful development — in particular, its emphasis on soccer education and nuance through biweekly “Match of the Day” programming. By way of contrast, MLS has yet to have equivalent programming to introduce and endear fans to its players and teams.

And it may get more troubling for MLS should the EPL, independent of NBC, get truly serious about the U.S. market by proactively targeting the expansive youth soccer demographic or having a local presence through lower-division pro leagues.

While MLS has a distinct advantage in marketing to fans within driving distance of an MLS stadium, it’s an open race for the significantly larger group of soccer fans with no local allegiance. To quantify, MLS teams are located in 15 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas that total less than 30 percent of the U.S. population, arguably leaving more than 200 million potential neutrals unable to regularly attend an MLS match and left to therefore base any affinity largely through TV and digital factors, such as access to top players and teams, league perception, compelling programming, and broadcast quality.

Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore (second from left) and NBC’s Jon Miller, Mark Lazarus and Sam Flood discuss the multiyear contract between the league and the network.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Pro soccer has yet to come close to reaching its potential on U.S. TV, with MLS and EPL each averaging around 300,000 viewers per game on ESPN2 over recent seasons. Soccer matches involving the U.S. and Mexican national teams regularly dwarf those ratings — and the 20 weekend EPL games to be aired live on NBC next season will likely do the same, particularly as those matches will feature one of the consensus top-six English teams.

The reality is that come August, the EPL will, for the first time, truly challenge MLS to become America’s league of choice, in the process competing for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of the next generation of U.S. soccer players, coaches and fans.

So what can MLS do?

While there’s a host of micro-measures MLS can continue to take to improve its product and business, the focus must now firmly be on the broader value proposition to domestic soccer fans. MLS may never be able to compete effectively with the EPL, with annual broadcast revenue alone approaching $3 billion; other global soccer leagues face the same challenge. So it must therefore differentiate and accentuate its product, especially outside of local MLS markets. In light of 600-plus hours of NBC dedication to the EPL each season, what’s good for soccer in the U.S. is by no means beneficial to MLS, notwithstanding improved TV ratings tied to EPL lead-ins on NBC.

As a first step, MLS has publicly stated its desire to become a top global league within 10 years, citing such metrics as quality of play, passion of fans and success of its business. A variation on that objective — and one that’s more definitive, measurable and fan-focused — would be to become the de facto best league in the Western Hemisphere. (That title currently belongs to either Mexico or Brazil.)

To become the undisputed king of the region, MLS must be creative and consider bold changes to various aspects of its current DNA, including:

A clearer focus on developing American and Canadian players (creation of a true MiLB or AHL equivalent?)

Embracing a near-term policy of signing only young players with future resale value (MLS as the recognized regional gateway to Europe?)

A more-formal relationship with the Mexican Primera Division (interleague play to capture the U.S.-Mexico rivalry?)

Participation and leadership in Copa Libertadores (adding lucrative U.S. market to provide a legitimate rival to UEFA Champions League?)

Re-evaluating its schedule (a more meaningful and globally conforming regular season?) and business structure (continued advantage of single entity?).

While there’s no shortage of practical, political and financial issues to work through, it’s imperative that MLS tailor and announce an effective EPL response, one that incorporates its strengths while acknowledging where MLS can and should fit within the broader soccer landscape. With its ESPN, NBC and Univision deals expiring next year, a compelling strategic plan is particularly important.

MLS is a strong league with good players; its annual highlight reel rivals any league in the world. From a business standpoint, it will have doubled its number of teams, built impressive stadiums, inspired local fans and otherwise created a solid league in less than 20 years. But MLS must make some significant changes to capture broader interest from an increasingly sophisticated U.S. soccer fan. Otherwise, it risks being increasingly marginalized by the EPL in the important race for national relevancy.

Jeff L’Hote (jefflhote@lfcinternational.com) founded LFC International in 2006. The New York City-based consultancy focuses exclusively on the business of global soccer with an emphasis on the U.S. market.

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