MLS Faces Tough Questions on TV versus Tickets

MLS on NBC Sports. Credit: Howard C. Smith - ISIPhotos.com

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 21, 2013) US Soccer Players - On Saturday, NBC unveiled its brand new pride and joy, the English Premier League. The American network spared no expense in their production of the world’s most popular soccer league, showcasing club soccer on a level never before seen in the United States. NBC’s investment included dedicating large blocks of airtime to not just the games, but to the type of ancillary programming that sets this season of English soccer on American television apart from any that came before.

The reasons NBC focused on the Premier League as anchor programming for its fledgling sports network, NBCSN, and chose to leverage its rights into over-the-air broadcasts and full distribution of English soccer across several platforms are myriad. The rise of soccer in America. The burgeoning visibility of the Premier League in the US. The availability of a high end sports product at a fraction of the cost they would pay for any domestic non-soccer sports property. The legitimacy it provides. Also among them are two considerations intrinsic to most major sports television contracts: a consistent schedule and exclusive broadcast windows.

NBC also has rights to a portion of Major League Soccer’s televised product. So far, their presentation has been stellar, a marked step up from previous broadcast partner Fox, and on par with standard-bearer ESPN. As it stands, MLS does not provide ESPN and NBC with exclusive broadcast windows. It also does not allow for flexible scheduling, a feature of NBC’s deal with the NFL that allows more important games to be moved to into national television slots late in the year and improves ratings. As Major League Soccer’s schedule is notoriously fluid, national broadcast times from week-to-week are rarely consistent. Fans must pay careful attention to find the nationally televised games week to week, a fact that naturally depresses ratings.

MLS ratings are poor. If MLS is going to improve the number of fans watching, a must if television revenue is to increase to any type of transformative level (the current deal with NBC, which runs through 2014, reportedly brings MLS $10 million a year), concessions will need to be made to broadcast partners. Concessions like flex scheduling and exclusive windows.

If NBC Sports and ESPN are frustrated with MLS, could we blame them? NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller has said repeatedly that his network intends to remain an MLS partner after the current contract expires, but poor ratings bring the value of the relationship into question. Even if NBC renews, the league’s television contracts are not commensurate when the apparent growing popularity of the league. In order to make MLS more attractive and give networks a fighting chance to improve ratings, the league must budge on both flex scheduling and exclusive windows. As the situation stands, broadcast partners find themselves hamstrung by policies severely tilted towards MLS gate revenue.

The reality is that Major League Soccer is still attached to ticket sales by an umbilical cord. Owners are naturally hesitant to risk damaging that stream of revenue in a bid to improve TV ratings. It’s very possible that giving up cherry Saturday evening kickoff times might result in fewer tickets sold in the short term, even if it might improve television ratings and provide for more television money in the long term. It’s not a given that more people would tune in to the televised product, and it’s not certain that television contracts would rise accordingly. Willingly vacating timeslots that traditionally bring the best crowds seems like bad business.

MLS crows about its attendance gains since the dawn of the Beckham/2.0 era, and rightly so. Still, relying on those numbers as a signifier of league growth fosters a sort of gate-induced myopia. An average attendance number higher than that of NBA or NHL means little when Major League Soccer’s annual television income pales in comparison. If the owners, and by extension the league, are hesitant to move games around to benefit television, it indicates a lack of trust that those fans will show up even if games are not in “optimal” windows.

MLS owners are now facing the same issues confronted by owners in other American sports decades ago, when radio and television seemed more like threats than boons to their sports. Over time, the fears proved to be unfounded, and major sports reaped the benefits of television bidding wars. Though MLS owners know television is crucial to the future growth of their assets in ways baseball and football owners of a bygone era did not, soccer investors seem stuck between the league’s lingering nascent status and a brightly lit future that remains shrouded in fog.

The single-entity model only works to exacerbate the situation. MLS teams share 30 percent of their home gates with the rest of the league, a revenue split that helps prop up the stragglers in the group and pay the league’s centrally held contracts. Teams that routinely sell out or draw reasonably large crowds could accede to changes in scheduling without much problem, but those clubs still struggling to fill seats might not be so quick to agree to a fundamental shift in philosophy if it affects everyone’s bottom line. Because overall MLS profitability is still but a dream, any significant drop in ticket revenue could have a large impact on teams’ and the league’s ability to take on the type of risk that could improve the product on the field.

Flexible scheduling presents its own set of challenges, not the least of which is the potential problems it would cause for traveling support. The number of away fans who follow their teams on the road is a unique element of MLS and soccer culture in the U.S.--changing game days and times too close to the scheduled date risks alienating fans and robbing games of the away supporter element. With care, it shouldn’t be a crippling problem, but it certainly demands attention.

Despite the progress made on the field, in the transfer market, and in the stands, MLS still faces a future series of critical junctures that will determine the league’s ability to rise above an intensely local niche competition. Addressing television failures is the first of these. As long as owners across MLS remain skittish about the potential loss of gate revenue that may come with the concessions necessary to give their television product the best platform, the league won’t be giving itself a chance to make a critical breakthrough.


Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact him:matchfitusa@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.

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12 Responses to MLS Faces Tough Questions on TV versus Tickets

  1. Dave Brett says:

    Jason, but I just don’t think that flex scheduling and exclusive windows would make any difference in the TV ratings. If the MLS did that, the rating would remain the same.

  2. mfg says:

    The MLS needs to become the off-season NFL. Have almost every game on Sunday at 1:00 and 3:00 (or 2:00 and 4:00), and a marquee Sunday night game. I know the season lasts through the beginning of the NFL and there will be a drop in ratings then, but that’s when the MLS gets very good, and the NFL games don’t mean very much yet. If I knew I could switch the channel every Sunday afternoon after the EPL games are over and watch an MLS double-header, I would watch virtually every game televised. As it stands now, I have no idea when I need to tune in, and that’s a major problem.

    Also (and I know this will never happen), have relegation. Nothing gets fans to support their club more than when they are afraid of dropping out of the league. Plus, sucky teams won’t last. Trust the rest of the world – this system works.

    • Agrilla says:

      Want to guarantee abysmal MLS attendance? Start games on Sunday at 1:00 and 3:00 (or 2:00 and 4:00). MLS didn’t get any better TV ratings when games were always on Thursday at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN2. Why would we assume that ratings would improve enough to compensate for an almost certainly drastic decline in attendance? MLS is not the NFL. There aren’t enough people like you who would watch it if games were scheduled like the NFL.

      Also, to what league can MLS teams be relegated? NASL? USL? That might work, I guess, but how long will MLS teams last after they’re relegated? What teams are going to be promoted to replace the relegated ones? If the former MLS teams that have been relegated end up folding, there won’t be any teams with suitable facilities, finances, fanbases, etc to promote. Also, why relegate MLS teams when, in a parity league, it’s possible for teams that are very poor in one season to turn things around and be very good in the next season? LA went from worst-to-first in 2004-2005 (I think), do you really want to remove those kinds of stories from the league?

      • Cody says:

        Here’s an idea for relegation: The important thing is to keep everything within Major League Soccer, but divided in such a way that the division matters to fans and teams. Instead of East/West conferences, switch to League 1 and League 2. League 1 is the top flight. Provide real incentives for teams to be in League 1. You get to keep more of your ticket revenue, you only show national broadcasts of League 1 games, increases salary cap for League 1 etc. Of course we would need more teams to be part of MLS for this to happen. Maybe the buy-in to League 2 level is at reduced cost.

      • mfg says:

        Want to guarantee abysmal NFL/MLB attendance? Start games on Sunday at 1:00. Oh wait, that works out pretty well for them already. Why can’t this work for MLS? If I watch every Sunday I am much more likely to become interested in the league and then attend a game. As it stands now, I really have no idea when MLS airs, so why bother? (I caught part of one game the other night, but I think it was a Tuesday. Unless you’re an 80+game per season sport, there is no reason to have games on a Tuesday. The EPL doesn’t have a fixed schedule, but the majority of games are on Saturday at 3:00 (local time), so I know to watch at 10:00AM where I live. There will ALWAYS be an EPL game at this time (barring international/cup breaks), and usually a pretty good one. The other games are either immediately before or after this slot, and they have one or two on Sunday, plus a “Monday Night” game. That’s a few more time-slots than I’m proposing, but it’s not hard to figure out when those games will be on. See what’s successful and copy it. It’s not rocket science.

  3. Ralph Calhoun says:

    It has just been a week but I’m loving the ability to watch all Fulham games on line when they are not televised. I had an MLS package last year, but too many games were blacked out. Hope something can be worked out for MLS to be more progressive giving fans access to games. It can only help n the long run. Thanks for the article.

    • The blackout policy with MLS is annoying.

      • andrew beck says:

        I don’t see anyway around the black out problem. As long as the teams are allowed to make local tv deals, they don’t want you to be able to go somewhere else to watch the games they paid for. The local stations paid a lot of money for Sounders and LAG broadcast rights. They don’t want you watching elsewhere.

  4. brandon says:

    There is no reason NBC and ESP N couldn’t set a block aside for a game each week. Ex. Sat 4pm ET, 7pm ET and Sun 5pm ET and just have the league figure it who will play those times. obviously teams like Seattle, Portland, LA SKC, etc. will likely make up the bulk of those games but who cares honestly especially if TV revenue increases and is shared equally.

  5. Dave K says:

    Maybe I’m an idiot, but what’s an “exclusive window?” It’s when only one game is on at the time? Only one network is broadcasting at the time?

    • Matt says:

      I’m guessing “Exclusive Window” refers to one game on at that time, like MLB on Fox. Until last year, only the Fox Saturday afternoon games could be broadcast between 1-5 or 6 p.m., so teams faced the choice of playing day games (with no TV broadcast) or playing at night. To capitalize on TV revenue, most MLB teams moved to Saturday night games (6 p.m. starts).

      It also applies on Sunday nights. Only the ESPN game of the week can be broadcast at 8 Eastern Time on Sundays. That forces most teams to play day games on Sundays.

      Fox especially (and ESPN to an extent) forced MLB to allow this, as they wanted baseball fans to only have the national games on TV during the time slot. Also, with significantly less day games, more people could watch the national games on TV.

      I’m guessing this is the type of window Jason is referring to.

  6. Jason says:

    I’m curious if Fox makes a deal. Right now between FS1 and FS2 there is a lot of open time. Since Fox will have the World Cup in the future they might like the chance to air USMNT games again.