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.
More From Jason Davis: