MLS / Soccer on TV

MLS+: What it is, and will it serve its mission?

One of the constant challenges for Major League Soccer is to broaden the fan base. There is a soccer market available for the taking here in the States, but convincing the casual fan to invest time in the league is easier said that done. There is also a largely untapped market of non-soccer fans to possibly lure, if the package put together is done right.

Last week, MLS Digital announced a new venture known as MLS+, “a new content and distribution group that brings together top storytellers, producers and digital media partners to create a broad range of soccer programming on multiple platforms.” To get a sense of the direction the league appears to be going in, think of KickTV, which is the result of a partnership between the league and Google, owner of YouTube. Basically, MLS+ appears to be focused on video content, but with a hope for more success through partnering with broadly distributed channels such as NBC Sports Network, NBCSports.com, and Yahoo!, as well as KickTV, the MLS YouTube channel, and more.

MLS Insider

The foremost item launched to date in this new programming initiative involves NBC Sports Network, and it is called MLS Insider. The name may be a little confusing, because MLSSoccer.com has an MLS Insider column, and a fan who frequents Twitter or the league’s site might not draw the distinction. But these two items appear quite different.

The show is being produced by Jonathan Hock, who was involved with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. To draw conclusions from the format of the first show, it will feature three vignettes measuring 6-10 minutes in length. The first episode aired Friday, and the segments featured Tim Cahill, the Sons of Ben, and Robbie Rogers. The production aspect was top quality, and based on the idea that this was an MLS-based 30 for 30 type show, it hit the mark.

NBCSN has done an excellent job of pushing out novel content, specifically the MLS 36 show (an extension of the 36 series they have produced for the NHL as well as IndyCar Racing).

MLS 36

For those who haven’t watched MLS 36, episodes follow a player (or players as in Friday’s installment featuring Sporting KC’s Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin) for 36 hours, usually ending with a matchday experience for the subject. Friday’s episode of MLS 36 was my first full-blown viewing, which I thought gave a nice juxtaposition against the MLS Insider debut. I was impressed with the way MLS 36 is packaged.

What sold me on MLS 36 was the strong marriage between the personal player elements alongside the actual nuts-and-bolts action surrounding preparation and the gameday experience. Going behind the scenes in the locker room for candid Peter Vermes team-talks is definitely a step towards giving the fan a glimpse of the struggles a team endures through a long 34-match season.

Looking ahead

The concern I have with MLS Insider becomes clear when you compare it to the MLS 36 series. Getting the preparation and gameday aspect into the MLS Insider format may be difficult, with the short vignette type of format used in the show. As much as soccer has made inroads to society in America, there is still a negative perception that buffets against the tide. The more these shows can help the viewer understand that soccer ‘s athleticism, preparation, and action are on par with more mainstream American sports, the better the chance of convincing a new fan to buy in.

Still, this is going to be a rocky road for MLS. The committed fan might carve out the time to watch these shows, but how do you target someone who has yet to give MLS a shot?

First of all, consistent show times are a must. The next episode of MLS Insider will air at 7:30pm on Friday—the same time as the previous episode. With the way that the league’s national broadcast times for matches fluctuate (and 11pm ET for a nationally televised game is absurd), having this show on at a set time every Friday night helps.

An on-demand element to this programming would certainly help. Yesterday, I checked out the sports section of my on-demand menu, and these shows were not there. Being a subscriber to NBC Sports Network’s corporate partner, Comcast, that surprised me. I was able to find Confederations Cup matches from ESPN, but nothing MLS related in NBC’s depository. A person can stream the show through the MLSSoccer website, but again, if you want to increase the reach a non-fan may not know to look there. With the on-demand element, oftentimes there are recommendations, and maybe with some gentle prodding the cable companies would feature the show occasionally in their service’s shop window.

It’s great to see MLS partnering with outfits like NBC and YouTube to create media that showcases the league’s virtues. Dispelling lingering doubts among segments of the population is key, and with the right mixture of the personal and the technical, it just might work. As always, the trouble is convincing those people to tune to NBC Sports Network at 7:30pm on a Friday night.

 

7 Comments

  1. Great points on exposure to those who are currently non-fans. Before Philly got an MLS team, I didn’t watch it at all despite regularly watching whatever EPL I could find. It wasn’t necessarily the inferiority of the MLS or my lack of a specific rooting interest, which I still don’t have despite watching EPL for years. I just had no exposure to the league and its offerings.

    In addition to the On Demand idea and consistent air times (though I’d argue Friday at 7:30 is a recipe for poor ratings), it might also help to cross-promote on local NBCSN channels and sites like CSN Philly, which I assume are more prominent in local homes than the nascent NBC Sports Network currently is. The casual fan tuning in to Phillies games or postgame coverage seeing spots for MLS 36 or Insider (agree that Insider is overused to the point of ubiquity—ESPN, CSN, and MLS already use it).

    I enjoyed the first episode of Insider, haven’t seen 36 yet, but it’s a good format from what I’ve seen in other sports like the NHL’s play to replicate the success of HBO’s Winter Classic series.

  2. MLS 36 is a great show. Would love to see a Union player featured in an episode at some point. However, something tells me Hack’s team talks won’t include as many f-bombs as Vermes’s did.

    • Agreed, really enjoy watching episodes of MLS 36.

      However, it always seems like the player profiled either has a bad match or his team loses.

      Just this season:

      Omar Gonzalez – Loses at home to Houston

      Brad Davis – Loses at home to SKC and breaks long unbeaten streak.

      Besler & Collin – Loss at home to Portland while conceding three goals.

      Last year’s players did better, but even so DeRo missed that PK vs. the Union and had to brood about it in a dingy RFK hot tub.

  3. Thanks for highlighting these shows I was not aware of (or at least until yesterday when Ed had the link to the SOB segment in the daily roundup).
    /
    Think they should have a show like the EPL pre-show of the week ahead. Fox has something like it during the 10pm news segment but am sure that NBC could put something together that is much better. Always enjoy watching the EPL pre-show.
    /
    I have no issue with variable show times. Once I have recorded one show on my DirecTV DVR, I can instruct it to tape future similar shows, no matter at what time they are shown.

  4. The biggest joke is trying to watch your home team without a cable subscription and premium channels like Fox Sport. I’m a cable-cutter – one of 14% of population and rising – who’ve ditched cable ripoffs and turned to internet OD and OTA for their viewing needs.

    While it’s good to see more depth around the game. None of announcements and deals get us closer to one digital subscription to rule them all. MLS Direct is a joke – “MLS Direct except when it’s blacked out”. I won’t pay to just “watch soccer” – I’m a supporter of my team above being a fan of football. I’ll gladly pay to “watch all of the MLS”, or “all of the Sounders”.

    Until that happens it means that MLS misses a growing and influential segment of the audience and myself.

  5. You guys want something fun (outside of traditional soccer)?

    try this on for size.
    http://www.bumpball.org
    guaranteed to go viral if you video.
    I own the equipment if needed..

    Highly recommend checking it out.
    Thanks for your time

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