Improving MLS’ poor TV ratings

Kartik Krishnaiyer has an important piece over at MLS Talk on MLS’ poor tv ratings. Krishnaiyer points out that while attendance is up, tv ratings in MLS were actually higher 10 years ago. As a result ESPN has dumped MLS games from its Thursday prime time spot. What is worrisome is that ESPN actually did a fairly decent job promoting the debut of Thursday night primetime.

As for how attendance could be up and ratings down, I think there are a few decent explanations. First, there is a lot more competition now than there was 10 years ago. In 1999 there was much less European club soccer on tv – or at least many fewer people had access to it. Therefore soccer fans would watch MLS, because it was the only thing on. Second, teams are starting to become more institutionalized and rooted in their local markets. DC United I know has become an increasingly known and important pillar in the DC sports scene. But that won’t have a big impact on tv ratings because it doesn’t effect markets outside of DC. Third, despite Beckham, you could say that the number of well-known stars in the league hasn’t really grown in the last ten years.

Kartik fears that if things don’t change:

the league will go the way of several domestic leagues in Asia and Latin America, where there is always a committed core of fans, but the majority of the football loving public breathes, lives and talks foreign club football. We do not want that to happen here in America.

As a result:

MLS has to make a decision. Try and be a good American league, keeping the core of the national team player pool at home or be a global player by releasing the purse strings on clubs budgets and spending and allowing individual clubs to promote themselves outside their “assigned” market. (ie. Allow DC United to advertise on billboards in Dallas about Jamie Moreno, or even in South America, for example). Right now, MLS is neither a good American league as the vast majority of US MNT pool players ply their trade abroad, nor a global player that has allowed clubs to build its own brand. MLS is a tweener league for lack of a better term.

I tend to think there isn’t a real reason to panic. MLS is growing its fanbase, the league rivalries are deepening, the new stadiums make the league look more professional, and its beginning to touch more places around the country. But poor tv ratings are a problem – so what should be done?

I think the key is to make the league much more relevant globally. The way to do this is actually to SELL more players to top Euro leagues. MLS needs to understand its place in the food chain. It is not amongst the elite leagues, this doesn’t mean it should lack ambition but over the next decade or so it should try to become the best of the rest. And to do so it has to be seen as a great league for ambitious players looking to make the jump to the top leagues.

I disagree with Kartik that to be a good American league MLS has to keep its American stars. I think that path will only doom the league, since promising American stars like Charlie Davies will simply avoid MLS altogether if they think MLS will refuse to sell them when big Euro clubs come calling. To be a good American league the league has to develop American talent. But the focus shouldn’t be on just U.S. talent but talent from around the world. While selling players may hurt in the short run, if the league becomes seen as a jumping off point to Europe it is going to attract more interest and better talent. I bet Charlie Davies goes to MLS, if MLS assured him that if offers came and he wanted the opportunity they would work with him.

To really grow ratings, the league needs to tap into the American EPL watching soccer fan – of which there are many (as seen by ESPN EPL ratings and the attendance for club tours). To do so the league needs to both expand its profile and improve the quality of the league by seeking to attract not just American talent, but talent from around the world. I think MLS is much better than a lot of people give it credit for, but as Bobby McMahon of FSC noted the quality on the field is incredibly uneven. There are players on the field that could certainly cut it in the EPL, there are Championship level, and there are league 2 quality players. In most leagues in Europe there isn’t such a wide disparity. Expanding the size of the squad and increasing salaries is required in order to fix this. But it is also about attracting more talented players. Young players from around the world would likely jump at the chance at coming and playing in America if they thought it would give them a good opportunity to get noticed. This is already happening to a certain degree and the league should not shy away from it.

MLS should also seek to gain the confidence of elite clubs and encourage them to loan out some of there younger reserve players. Some meat should be added to the bones of these partnership agreements. For instance, lets say Tottenham at the end of last season in May knows Giovanni Dos Santos is not going to be a core part of the team at the start of the EPL campaign – why not loan him out to San Jose (who they have a partnership with) – he plays until October and then comes back. The summer schedule could be used to the leagues advantage. MLS would definitely attract more television interest if a Man U or Barca youth prospect was on the field.

For this to eventually happen however the league will have to loosen its tight salary cap and the single entity system, which makes the labor discussions coming up tremendously important. The league has grown slowly and intelligently, but at a certain point MLS clubs are going to need more freedom to compete both with each other and within the global market. Parity is good – but a league needs some marquee franchises with some cache and that requires a bit more disparity.

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2 Responses

  1. Cheers, I look at all your writings, keep them coming.

  2. Superb information.

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