SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/Opinion

Improving play, coverage key for MLS TV ratings success

On the surface, the long-term TV rights deal MLS is negotiating with ESPN and Fox sounds positive. The reported $70 million-a-year figure would double the league’s rights fees from its previous contract and could mean additional revenue from selling Spanish-language rights. In fact, Univision’s UniMas ratings for the MLS Cup final exceeded ESPN’s.

The problem is that TV ratings for MLS matches remain quite low, lower than English Premier League broadcasts on NBC Sports or even WNBA broadcasts.

The 18-year-old American league has been a success by many measures. Average attendance approached 19,000 for the second season running, which is especially lucrative for the clubs that have built soccer-specific stadiums. The league also is adding teams, and one of the latest additions, in Orlando, is expected to pay a $70 million entry fee.

But TV ratings remain stagnant. In fact, ESPN’s ratings for the MLS Cup were the lowest in league history, down 44 percent from 2012.

MLS faces two major problems: The product it offers suffers by comparison with leagues such as the EPL. And fans may also continue to choose to dedicate their finite viewing hours to the other American sports.

So what can MLS do?

MLS has three advantages over its foreign competitors. One, fans can actually attend matches. Two, many of them would prefer to support a local, American team. And three, broadcasts of MLS matches occur at more desirable times. For example, the first EPL match starts at 4:30 a.m. on the West Coast. These advantages suggest that Americans would often choose MLS over EPL if other factors were close to being equal.

Developing quality players and promoting attacking play are ways MLS can attract more viewers.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The biggest challenge is narrowing the quality gap. There is no short-term solution. The youth system still needs to be overhauled. The various governing bodies need to shift focus to developing 6- to 12-year-old players, make it profitable for coaches to work with the most talented prospects rather than those with the wealthiest parents, fully integrate Latino players and coaches into the system, experiment with ways to connect with African-American communities, and create a structure that discourages an overly physical approach to playing.

Even if many more quality players are produced, however, MLS will not benefit significantly unless it becomes far more able and willing to compete for their services. MLS simply cannot afford to stock a team with high-quality players, regardless of where they come from, and clubs have generally erred on the side of spending cautiously. This is quite understandable, especially considering the way the North American Soccer League (1967-84) spent itself into the ground. But MLS needs to push the envelope, putting improving the quality of players ahead of short-term profits. It may never be able to compete on fully equal terms with the biggest leagues in Europe, but significantly improving the standard of play should be sufficient for MLS to garner the interest of most American fans.

Solving these problems may take a while, which may explain why Commissioner Don Garber has targeted 2022 for becoming a world-class league, but several interim steps can be taken: encouraging more attacking play; better educating fans, TV announcers and journalists; and packaging matches more palatably.

Promoting attacking play by appealing to the good will of coaches, or even owners, will not work because getting results is more valuable to a club than playing attractively. It is up to MLS to take steps that compel teams to attack more. They should mandate that all fields are as wide as possible, crack down on physical play, and use five officials, instructing the two behind the goal to call penalties on defenders who commit fouls such as grabbing jerseys. One of the biggest misconceptions in soccer is that referees should let players play; lenient officiating really just allows the more physical players to bully the more talented ones.

The quality of American announcing has improved a great deal in the last 20 years, but most commentators still lack the ability to keep the viewer’s interest when matches are being played in midfield. There are around 15 meaningful chances to score in a 90-minute match, or about one every six minutes, which means announcers must find a way to keep viewers’ interest in the meantime. Similarly, the newspaper coverage of matches, especially the match reports, is pretty awful. Soccer is not an objective game, easily measured by numbers. Thus, writers must be educated about how to describe what is essentially a qualitative sport.

Finally, one way to educate the media, fans, and even many coaches would be to produce a highlight program that shows the key moments and is followed by expert analysis. Ten-minute recaps would make every match seem interesting. This is important because many Americans would like to keep up with MLS, but they are unwilling to watch an entire 90-minute match, especially if it does not feature their local team. Such a program would give them that option while familiarizing them with MLS’s teams, players and controversies.

The good news is that Americans are now willing to watch soccer on a regular basis. The EPL’s ratings prove that. The problem is that they are not just going to watch a league because it is American. The NFL, NBA and MLB do not have to compete with quality competitors in a global market, but MLS always will.

Ken Pendleton (kpendleton@sportconflict.org) is a senior researcher and project designer of the Sports Conflict Institute in Eugene, Ore. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and, even though he should know better, he has misspent his adulthood studying the major American sports and international soccer.
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