2014 MLS schedule shows promise on TV front

There are many offseason traditions in Major League Soccer, from the Super Draft to the Waiver Draft to the “Close The Sliding Glass Door, I Can Feel The Draft.”

The least official and most related to the pining for the commencement of the next season is the griping about the MLS schedule being released. Or not being released. Or being scheduled to be released, only to be delayed for some unbeknownst reason.

That tradition was smashed this week. Surprise, surprise: The MLS schedule is out.

One would like to think this early release reflects MLS acknowledging that many of the issues raised in the past years are real issues — principally speaking, inconsistent national TV slots and a lack of flexibility to present the best match-ups. We can’t be sure this is a peace offering, but it appears that the league is at least getting the message, as evidenced by their published fixture list.

Let’s look at some of the positives.

Early season Saturdays on NBCSN

The first seven match weekends will have some prime offerings on NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoons. All these matches start between 2:30 and 4 pm ET. The first three Saturdays feature 2013 playoff teams.

The last of these matches will occur on April 19, which coincides with the first full weekend of the NHL playoffs. The schedule on NBCSN gets much less consistent at that point. After that April 19 date, the games switch over to Sunday afternoons, again with the same mid-afternoon time slot.

The Saturday afternoon slot is great, but the variability of the time slots within that raises the question of why start times weren’t 3 pm across the board. We should know by mid-May if that goes far enough to reel in the casual fan on a routine basis.

The return of Friday night MLS

Do you remember that last year of FOX Soccer’s MLS coverage and the whole Soccer Night in America thing? It was a step up for FOX Soccer, but the channel’s meager distribution left this novel rebranding with little to show.

Whether they try to dress it up or not, MLS and the NBC Sports Network will give Friday nights another go. Undoubtedly looking to ride the coattails of World Cup 2014, NBCSN will showcase the Portland Timbers hosting Sporting Kansas City on June 27 (albeit at 11 PM ET). The following Friday night, which is Independence Day, NBCSN will have a doubleheader.

From that point on, there will be a match on NBCSN every Friday night, except for one weekend in late July.

For all these positives, some negatives remain.

Late starts still a problem

Much of the talk about MLS and its financial viability focuses on television ratings.

If they want TV ratings to improve, 11 pm ET starts are unacceptable.

Part of the issue stems from the perception (or possible reality) that the best teams are in the West. The owners out west want their money from the gate, but how many fans will stay up till 1 am to watch these matches? I won’t, and the casual fan won’t either. (Editors’ note: We won’t either!)

If MLS desires a more lucrative payday from their next TV contracts, they can’t afford to do this much longer.

ESPN not in the game until May

The Worldwide Leader in Sports (or more accurately, its sidekick ESPN2) does not have an MLS match on its books until May 27, a Tuesday night affair right after Memorial Day. The media conglomerate has an extensive commitment to the NBA and MLB. Whether that plays a part is unclear.

The ratings on ESPN’s networks are better than NBCSN at this point. That’s a conundrum for MLS: While they get more viewers with ESPN, NBC is dedicating more time and resources to broadcasting MLS-related content. While ESPN FC does talk some MLS, shows like MLS Insider and MLS 36 give an hour’s worth of league-centric content.

The schedule does appear to be moving in the right direction, but there remains a stubbornness towards adapting to a “national” attitude vs. the current “local” attitude. A major question remains: Can they garner that next lucrative TV deal without that kind of step change?

One Comment

  1. The Unions’s July 16th home match against the Red Bulls – a Wednesday – will be on ESPN2 at 7:30. I’m not ecstatic this game is on Wednesday, but I think MLS could benefit from televising mid-week matchups with 7:30 start times during the summer. Even in the summer weekends are picnic days or travel days, so you’re more likely to get the casual fan looking for baseball to stumble across the game and check it out. Even networks know the best audience is prime time Monday-Thursday.

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