Soccer's new stage
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.
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.
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.
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|
|MLS viewership on Fox Soccer|
Notes: Figures exclude All-Star Game, World Football Challenge matches and friendlies involving MLS teams.
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research
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.”
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.