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For Major League Soccer, TV is broken but for Real Salt Lake not so much

What is the word that defines when you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? Because when it comes to national TV that is exactly what MLS is. Now I have to be careful here, it isn't all MLS's fault, as ESPN/2, Galavision, and NBC Sports all play a major role in this as well.

Late last week in the online version of the Wall Street Journal in their interview with MLS Comish Don Garber, said the following:

Television ratings are down 18 percent on ESPN and ESPN2 through three telecasts but the new package on NBC Sports Network has averaged 118,000 viewers for six telecasts, up 84 percent from last year on Fox Soccer Channel, which has a smaller distribution.

"We've got to grow our television ratings in order to achieve our goals," he said. "We could turn that switch on if we wanted to invest in more David Beckhams, because we've seen ratings growth with (Thierry) Henry and Beckham when those two players are on national television."

Now I firmly believe that one thing he has said is right, we do need the TV ratings to grow, it is the only way we are going to get more money for the rights to broadcast matches. Which I believe is the key to larger salary caps, deeper rosters both in terms of talent and depth, and the league growing, but I am l left with questions.

You have had David Beckham for four plus years but your ratings still suck nationally, this is year 3 with Thierry Henry and your ratings still suck, are you talking about the one match the two will play this year? So one good match is enough for you? So the fact that your numbers have only grown because of adding markets and changing to a network with more households, isn't troubling? I mean come on Don, there has been no real growth in TV ratings for MLS soccer despite the league adding those big names and big salaries, has there? Yes, I will give you David has been on Oprah, and the talk shows, heck he even has his own national Burger King ad on TV, but not one of those has resulted in a real bump in MLS TV ratings and they aren't likely to.

The problems aren't easy but there is one question that has to be asked, is the strategy of showing top markets over and over again working?

So let me be clear, I don't think MLS and their national TV partners should avoid showing the big markets or big names, but it is clear that doing the same thing each year isn't working because each year the conversation is about how to improve ratings. So who how are the networks choosing what matches to show? Easy market size, market size, and little else. The exception is their fascination with the crowds at Seattle and Portland (which I fully understand and have little issue with). Here is how the schedules look for national TV:

  • ESPN will show 10 MLS matches this year and 7 of them involve ( New York 4 times, 4 times for LA), the other 3 feature Seattle (the #14 TV market).
  • ESPN 2 will show 10 MLS matches this year and 7 of them involve LA or New York (3 New York, 4 LA), 2 involve Philly (#4 TV market) and the other is FC Dallas vs Houston (#5 vs#10 TV markets).
  • Galavision will show 24 matches this year, 4 appearances by New York, 4 by LA.
  • Are you seeing a trend here, but remember that ratings are down 18% so far on ESPN/2 this year
  • NBC is scheduled to show 3 matches, two feature New York, the other Seattle
  • NBC Sports is scheduled to show 37 matches this year, 6 involve New York, 7 involve LA

This is no surprise it was the same way in 2011 and 2010, and yet here we are again with numbers that don't impress, don't get MLS to that next level. ESPN/2 featured LA, New York and Seattle 19 times in 2010, and again in 2011 and somehow the numbers just don't improve.

I think there are a couple of rather glaring issues, first clearly focusing a vast majority of national TV matches on the biggest markets isn't working very well. In fact if you look at the info that came out in 2010 about what TV markets watch MLS, it is funny that the number one TV market in the US, New York isn't even found on the top 10 markets that watch MLS:

  • Seattle-Tacoma
  • Los Angeles
  • Houston
  • Las Vegas
  • Norfolk VA
  • Columbus OH
  • Dallas-Ft. Worth
  • Miami-Ft. Lauderdale
  • St. Louis
  • Washington DC

One thing is clear New York, the market MLS thinks is ripe for a second team, appears to have little interest in watching MLS. Might want to think about putting another team there, if you think it will save the league and generate huge TV numbers, cause nothing points in that direction.

Now let's be clear the numbers aren't impressive even in these markets, you have the reality that ESPN/2 is down 18% this year from last year's numbers that were up 18%, and let's be really clear for ESPN in 2010 their average was 288K for MLS matches, and in 2011 it was 311K, so it is likely we are back to that 288K number. Remember that ESPN/2 are available in over 100 million households in the US, and MLS is getting 1/3 of 1 percent of that total to watch matches.

MLS seems proud of the 118K that are watching matches on NBC Sports, which is typical, it is a bigger number as they say by 84% (I call BS on that) over FSC (which had a 70K average last year). I actually consider the new numbers a bit of a disgrace, remember that FSC was only in 40 million households and NBC Sports is in about 90 million so the numbers should have at least doubled.

Now I think there are a couple of solutions, none of which will MLS like.

  • More matches during the week - I get that teams don't like midweek matches and that historically in some markets the gates have been hurt by midweek matches, but even the NFL knows that having matches on Monday night, Saturday nights and Thursday nights at some point of their season helps out. I think if you had two matches each Wednesday on national TV, one at 7pm EST and one at 7pm PST that you would establish a viewing audience, I also would put one match a week on at 8pm EST on Friday nights. To make it work you have to do it every week of the season, you need a commitment from the teams and the networks to make it work.
  • If you do a national match on Saturday do it early - Saturday will always be when you have a majority of your matches, so a big chunk of your fans are not at home to watch matches they are out tailgating or at matches. I love that this week NBC Sports has an early match on, keep it at or about that time all season and I bet your numbers get better.
  • Spread the love - If you want to build an audience they need to know that there are more than 3-5 teams in the league, I get showing the bigger markets more, but passing over teams like Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake, San Jose and others every year is getting old. Let your fans see the teams from around the league, let them find a favorite if they aren't in a MLS market (hint 4 of the top 10 watching MLS don't have a team). You have a lot of faces and players who you can use to promote the league and not all of them are named David, Theirry, or Landon.

Now there are other things that will help the sport be better received on TV, first explain the rules. Do a short 2-3 minute piece before each match that explains things like offsides, hand balls, and things that are unique about soccer. Also do a piece about the fans at each stadium you broadcast from, soccer is best seen live so use TV to drive fans to their local matches and supporting their local teams. I hear from people all the time that once they see the game live that it makes it much easier to watch on TV.

I also think that there is something that the national TV guys need to learn from the local broadcasts, I am not sure what it is but think about this fact, while broadcasting to 90 million homes gets NBC sports 118K viewers, in the 33rd largest TV market Salt Lake City, ABC4 and CW30 are averaging over 35K per match they broadcast. That is about 1/3 of what NBCS is getting, despite broadcasting to 87 million fewer homes.

How good are RSL's local TV numbers? Well I asked Matt Jaquint the GM of ABC4/CW30 a couple questions about the local broadcasts, and he was nice enough to provide some additional information:

1. We are now 7 matches into the MLS season and all the matches have been broadcast on either ABC4 or CW 30, how are the ratings doing?

The ratings have remained at earlier levels. We are encouraged by the strength of the core audience that watches RSL games.

2. Are you getting any feedback from the public about airing the matches? Recently a midweek match was a tape-delayed broadcast on CW30, is that something fans should expect in the future?

From time to time matches will be delayed for network obligations. That being said the match did a similar rating on a two hour delay which is very encouraging. You have to remember fans only saw a handful of games last year and only on pay networks. This is a big upgrade.

3. How do RSL ratings compare with other programming in similar time slots on both networks?

They are comparable to a lot of shows at that time period on broadcast television and that is good news for soccer.

4. With national numbers being fairly low based on how many households those networks are in, how are the RSL numbers in other cities around the state served by ABC4 and CW30?

We reach the entire state of Utah and can be seen over the air by any household. Thus, people around the state are thrilled to have access to RSL.

5. Could you break down the RSL numbers by match? Are the matches against bigger market teams more popular, or are you seeing numbers more correlated to times and which network the matches are on?

The matches have been fairly consistent. It is probably too early to determine if the ratings will spike and fall due to the opponent.

So while the questions about MLS on national TV abound, it is clear that locally RSL has gotten themselves into a much better position and it is resulting in more fans in the market place both at matches (RSL attendance is up over last year by about 10%) and on TV. I don't believe that Salt Lake is the only team doing well with their local broadcasts, so I think MLS and the national TV partners might just want to spend some time with local team and local broadcast partners to find out what they are doing differently and how to exploit that on a national level.

So what would you do to get more people watching MLS on national TV, clearly ideas are needed?