MLS and ESPN should work together to schedule transatlantic doubleheaders

espn studio

ESPN studio show could anchor transatlantic doubleheaders; Photo by Bob Oroshi

Coming on the heels of a pulsating MLS playoff opener in Seattle, it’s a big derby weekend for soccer on ESPN with Arsenal v Tottenham on Saturday morning and the first Beckham playoff game on Sunday afternoon. Those two games are both pretty strong draws, but there is more that ESPN and MLS can do to capitalize on top European leagues to build audience share for American soccer: schedule transatlantic doubleheaders.

The north London derby is always one of the most exciting games of the year and is probably the second biggest rivalry in English soccer behind Liverpool v Manchester United. The energy and passion on display—even at the normally subdued Highbury—will bring an electric atmosphere into American’s homes on Saturday morning. The Gunners total domination of Spurs over the last decade has taken some of the impact out of the game, but also added bite for Spurs fans desperate to beat their hated rivals in the league for the first time in a decade.

On Sunday afternoon, MLS and ESPN will finally get what they’ve been waiting for since the Beckham experiment began, a showcase playoff game with its most marketable star. Even though John Harkes erroneously calls it a superclassico, the LA derby will feature both Beckham and Landon Donovan in the first game of what many supporters of soccer in America (Chivas USA and other Western conference fans aside) hope will be a long playoff run.

We’ve talked before about how significant ESPN’s acquisition of Premier League and La Liga games can be for the growth of the game in the US. That analysis has focused mostly on ESPN using its near monopoly on sports broadcasting to promote soccer. A greater opportunity exists to maximize the affect of top European league games broadcast on MLS’s television partner: create doubleheaders with the first game being an English or Spanish league match followed immediately by an MLS game. Soccer fans in America would flock to watch Chelsea vs. Aston Villa followed by DC United vs. New England.

The time difference would be a challenge, but easily overcome with some nifty maneuvering by both MLS and ESPN. During this first season, ESPN has mostly broadcast the early English game airing at 7:30am in the East (and a miserable 4:30am on the West Coast) on Saturdays and an afternoon Spanish match on Sunday. But there are other times to choose from. In England, Saturday matches are played at 3pm (10a/7a) and 5:30pm (12:30p/9:30a), and 4pm (11a/8a) on Sunday. Spain plays later, mostly at 8pm (2p/11a) and 10pm (4p/1p) on both Saturdays and Sundays.

The later Saturday English matches could be tough to get as Sky and FSC have a stranglehold on them. But Sunday is the better option anyway, as the Spanish games line up pretty well and are more often on Sundays. ESPN and MLS could set up a Sunday Premier League-MLS or La Liga-MLS double header, with it going for an Premier League match when the MLS game is hosted by an Eastern conference team and a La Liga game for a Western conference contest. It could create a studio show before, between, and after the games similar to how the networks handle NFL doubleheaders, also allowing for some extra time between games to ensure that the schedule works. It doesn’t always have to be a marquee matchup for it to be a success, as such a set up would likely become a fixture among US soccer fans independent of the teams involved.

MLS would be smart to begin discussions with ESPN on how it can conform its schedule for the 2010 season to facilitate Sunday transatlantic doubleheaders. These event would firmly entrench soccer on the US weekend sports calendar and is a creative way to boost ratings and support for soccer in America.

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