MLS

MLS scheduling issues emerge again

The prospects of shifting the MLS schedule to an August-to-May season is a thorny issue that always raises the dander of American soccer fans when broached.

On Monday, another report found the sweet spot and got everyone talking.

The New York Daily News reported that a source within MLS said the league was considering a shift to the August-to-May season map, perhaps as early as next year. The league quickly squashed the story, saying that 2014 will look much like 2013.

What about changing to the international calendar?

The issue is a toss-up.

Eric Wynalda has argued that switching would prevent your playoff soccer from being affected by major snow events (which happened in 2012 at Red Bull Arena). He (and others) argue that playing your best soccer in prime conditions in May or June would attract viewership.

Others argue that an early league season goes straight up against the NFL and college football — two massive television competitors — not to mention the MLB playoffs. They also argue that turnout would be hurt in matches played in cold weather. In some ways, it’s really a no-win situation.

While it is easy to agree that a MLS Cup final played on a luscious spring pitch would be optimal for play, the NBA and NHL playoffs aren’t any less competitive than NFL and college football.

True, 2014 would have been a good year for the switch if MLS has it in the long-term plans, because the World Cup would build in some logical break time during the summer.

Still, 2015 could be another favorable year for a switch. With New York City FC scheduled for launch, it would give the team another 6-8 months of preparation time. San Jose’s stadium would be completed in time to start of the season. It is also the first year of the next television contract and next labor agreement with the MLS Players Association.

It’s easy to feel ambivalent about the whole issue. While MLS could use the switch to their advantage from a timing perspective, the crowded American professional sports market means that playing fall-to-spring presents doesn’t result fewer challenges than playing spring-to-fall.

Regardless of the month the season starts, MLS has other schedule problems to fix first.

International dates need to be honored

On Wednesday night, the Montreal Impact faced the Los Angeles Galaxy in a key matchup that had multiple playoff implications. The Galaxy did the Union (and others) a favor by beating the Impact, but going into the match, the Impact seemed have the upper hand. Jaime Penedo was rested, and Robbie Keane was left on the bench until the hour mark. Why? Because they were involved in international fixtures Tuesday. Keane only entered the game because the Galaxy were desperate for the three points in a battle for playoff position.

How is that fair within the league setup? Many teams are forced to play fixtures without key players because MLS continues to schedule matches during FIFA-mandated international dates. How is it fair that Seattle was able to start Clint Dempsey on Saturday, while Los Angeles was without Landon Donovan after suffering a mild injury on international duty (ironically, Seattle lost even with Dempsey, while the Galaxy got their win)? It’s a problem MLS must address.

National TV Times need to be standardized

The league’s apparent dartboard approach to scheduling is frustrating. TV matches like the last night’s often start too late. Owners like their stadiums as full as possible. The schedule is typically set to put local start times at 7:30 or 8 PM, but even that seems to vary.

There are extenuating circumstances that make certain teams pick certain times. The summer heat makes late starts more favorable, while eastern Canadian teams take advantage of afternoon times in their cooler climate. The Sounders have a restriction on starting matches at times close to Mariner games. And so forth.

But MLS is at a point where they need the TV numbers. Networks with national TV coverage need to draw out the hardcore MLS fans while adding new fans through consistently accessible times. It is easier for fans if MLS matches on NBC Sports Network start at a set time every week. When start times vary from week to week, it is less so.

Making these few changes to its scheduling protocol will help viewership numbers. Will it bridge the gap to the “Big Four” sports on television? Probably not, but neither will changing to a fall-to-spring schedule.

14 Comments

  1. I agree with all those concerns, but there is one more:
    .
    Spread out the matchups
    .
    The final 2 games for New England feature a home-and-home series with Columbus. Their 3rd game was played in July. A similar scenario came when the Union faced Chicago on May 11. Then, we played a mid-week game while Chicago was off until May 18, when they faced us again. This MLS season has been the most bone-headed scheduling I’ve ever seen–amateur or professional.

  2. “…the NBA and NHL playoffs aren’t any less competitive than NFL and college football.”

    There’s no bigger NBA fan than me, but you can’t tell me that getting away from football won’t give MLS a better shot at viewership. Even the best rated NBA games of all-time get a rating equivalent to a standard NFL regular season game.

    The NHL’s ratings have improved in recent years, but they have a long way to even get in the same zip code as the NFL.

    The NFL is a beast when it comes to TV viewers.

    • The NFL is a made-for-tv sport with short bursts of action and then time off, and loads of breaks for TV timeouts. Add to that the sky high prices and the fantasy craze – where watching multiple players is becoming more important than the team – and it’s just easier and more convenient to watch on TV. The times are even every week, and later in the season they put the most attractive games in prime time. As mentioned MLS would benefit greatly by following that model. Get rid of the 11 pm Sunday night ESPN match and utilize the NFL-absent 1 or 4 pm time slot, especially in the spring. Add to that a Friday night matchup like in 2012 and people will glance in because it’s consistently on at the same time, same place. And there HAS to be a game on every week, period.

      • I think they pull better ratings on the West Coast. So I think they don’t mind having a national broadcast skewered towards Cascadia.

        That being said having a weekly Marquee matchup during a consistent national time slot would help. But lets face it Weekend night timeslots are a non starter when you are appealing to a younger, getting out of the house demographic.

  3. Before trying to fix the schedule, the league needs to fix the number of teams. An odd number of teams just does not work. The league may want to think it’s a 34 game schedule but an odd number of teams creates a scheduling nightmare with off weekends, midweek trips across the country like Montreal had, and a lot of general unfairness. Three years of this is just ridiculous. The league needs to plan better and then, once they have an even number, go to a BPL like schedule where everyone plays within a day or two of each other (and make the occasional exception when you have something like the Champions League final which only affects one team).

    • Adding teams can’t happen overnight. Adjusting schedules can. We’ll get to the correct number of teams within a few years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make temporary schedule adjustments for each season in the meantime.

  4. I’d like to see the MLS adopt the ‘everyone plays the last game at the same time’ thing, like the EPL does. I guess that would require an even number of teams …

    • I agree, that would be fantastic for playoff races and supporter’s shield races.

      • I love the concept and I love when EPL does it, but TV time is too valuable in a league that’s still trying to bring in viewers. Maybe they could do all final Eastern Conference games at the same time and follow it with all West games time slot, but they should definitely make a full day out of it. Split them by 1 1/2 hours to allow people on the East to get home in time to watch the West games.

  5. “How is that fair within the league setup? Many teams are forced to play fixtures without key players because MLS continues to schedule matches during FIFA-mandated international dates. How is it fair that Seattle was able to start Clint Dempsey on Saturday, while Los Angeles was without Landon Donovan after suffering a mild injury on international duty (ironically, Seattle lost even with Dempsey, while the Galaxy got their win)? It’s a problem MLS must address.”

    Help me out here…how exactly is it “unfair”? Every team knows which players will or are likely to be called into their national sides. Each team knows their own schedule. Isn’t it incumbent on each team to manage their roster accordingly to field their best possible XI? How would you suggest MLS address this? Tell Seattle they couldn’t play Dempsey? In the previous break, wasn’t Seattle without Dempsey while having to play a league match? Doesn’t that happen for everyone? Even the Union lost Keon (though that may be addition by subtraction) and Hack knew he’d have to compensate to the loss to his attacking midfield (is there a sarcasm font here?). So while I agree that it sucks to lose talented international players when playoff positioning time is approaching, those teams (except maybe the U), are in those positions because of the contributions from those players. Is it fair that Seattle has the resources to buy Dempsey and we gaze longingly to Harrisburg? Yes. It is. That’s the league.

    • It is unfair when teams lose critical players at crucial times. While other teams don’t.

      It has to be infuriating.

      Losing Keon is one thing, losing Kean and Donovan is another.

  6. I would much rather play against MLB than the NFL or NCAAFOOTBAL, they by far out do every one in viewership I america right now. The problem I have is we can’t get MLS to take time off during international breaks, but the league darn near shuts down when a ManU or Chelsea role through town. It’s obvious what the priorities are.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    Well playing games during the International breaks for the Union certainly isn’t a problem… although it is one I would like to have. But that is another comment for another day.
    .
    As for my take on the fall to spring schedule. I think it could work if the league schedules the games correctly. Most college football games are on Saturday afternoon… with a marquee matchup on Saturday night. The MLS could own Saturday night, with a few games earlier in the day and maybe a game on Sunday, which would obviously compete with the NFL, but as someone said earlier no one can compete with the NFL on TV. The MLS is all over the map with it’s scheduling. As for weather, that is a legitimate concern. There would have to be a break in there, especially for the Canadian teams, but I’m not paid to work that stuff out… HA!

  8. The Chopper says:

    December through March soccer in Denver, Torotno, Chicago, Montreal , Vancouver sounds like a great plan. And DC, New York, Philly, Columbus Portland and Seattle are not exactly warm weather either.

    One USMNT game during a freak blizzard is one thing, a whole season of that is another. Tough way to build a fan base.

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