Preseason / Schedule news / Union

The 2019 Union broadcast schedule: Why no national love?

Poll question: Which team do you think the average Major League Soccer fan would rather watch on television in 2019? Philadelphia Union or F.C. Cincinnati?

Theoretically, the answer should be the Union. Philadelphia is a much bigger market, and it is also a very prominent soccer area. The club has been around for 10 years, and despite coming up short, it has some relevant history in the U.S. Open Cup. Actually, it has history, period.

F.C. Cincinnati doesn’t. As the newest member of MLS, Cincinnati bears no expectations or guarantees of any kind. For all anyone knows, they could be terrible. Why would the casual MLS fan want to watch a small-market club without any star players? Because they’re new?

Yet, according to the 2019 MLS broadcast schedule, the answer to the poll is F.C. Cincinnati. And it is not even close. With no background, no big names, and every possibility of being mediocre, the club is slated for national TV seven times in 2019.

The Union? Once — a road match against D.C. United on Sunday, August 4 on Fox Sports 1. So, just because F.C. Cincinnati is the newest club in the league, they get featured on national TV three weeks in a row to open the season.

What does that say about the Union?

We know it’s not location. Philly is the sixth most populated city in the U.S. with a large soccer following. We also know it’s fully possible for a Philly team to be nationally relevant. Look at the Sixers — attracting star players, playing on Christmas, consistently on SportsCenter, and part of national conversation. The Eagles have fans all over the country. Sure, soccer will never be as popular as football or basketball in Philadelphia, but the framework is there for the Union to be a popular MLS side. Still, ESPN and Fox (or maybe the league) want nothing to do with them.

No Stars

The natural place to start is on the field. The easy answer to the Union’s popularity question is they don’t have a star player. Marco Fabian, the club’s recent record-breaking signing, is about as close to one as supporters could hope for, and he’ll do a ton for attendance and exposure. But he won’t attract television cameras. He’s not a star in the way that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sebastien Giovinco are stars. The Union have never had a star of that caliber, and they have therefore never been a TV headliner.

Okay, but if F.C. Cincinnati’s pass is “new club,” what about Minnesota United? They don’t have a star. Why are they on ESPN five times this season? Because of a sparkly new stadium?

What about Orlando City? They were arguably the worst team in the league, no longer have their star in Kaká, and play in the league’s smallest market — all that equals a few national broadcasts? Does purple just look better on TV?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Red Bulls. They don’t have a global star either and haven’t had one since Thierry Henry left, but they always seem to be on national TV. Other than a globally recognized brand on the kit, what do they have that the Union don’t? Wins. A lot of wins.

Winning = everything?

If you’re winning three of six Supporter’s Shields without a big star like New York, something good is happening. The Red Bulls are always on top of the Eastern Conference and always in MLS Cup conversations. From the perspective of a TV network, it really doesn’t matter that they haven’t won it yet. They have won almost 40 percent of their total matches played in MLS and are the 6th winningest franchise in league history. So, in some way, maybe the Red Bulls are simply a reliable product to put on TV.

Certainly more so than Orlando City, who finished dead last in the East last year and only won four matches. If winning gets you exposure, it doesn’t seem right that they would be rewarded for such a poor year.

Especially not when you look at a team like Houston. The Dynamo are one of the league’s most historic clubs, despite only being around since 2005. They won MLS in their inaugural season and repeated in 2007. Things have slowed down a touch since, but they still have four total MLS Cup appearances in a short time frame. You might think Houston would be a club the league would want to display, but like the Union, they won’t be featured once on ESPN in 2019.

No, the Dynamo weren’t good last year, but they were still miles better than Orlando. Winning is clearly a factor, but it can’t be the only one.

Attendance

Toronto FC is a really interesting club to look at in this conversation. They were extremely underwhelming trying to defend their title last year, finished 9th in the Eastern Conference, and still brought in over 26,000 people per match — that was good for third in MLS. The league of course wants to produce a quality product on the field, but more importantly, they want people to watch that product — both in person and on TV. Toronto was poor last season, but a lot of people in Canada still consistently showed up to watch them play. That simply has to be something TV networks are looking at. A bigger, louder crowd is better for everyone.

Minnesota? Orlando? There’s only one plausible explanation to their national TV frequency: they are both in the top 6 in league attendance. Jerseys aside and soccer knowledge aside and everything else aside, those clubs fill the seats. Every match. To the networks setting up the cameras, 23,000+ people is a lot more important than what actually happens on the pitch.

The Union made the playoffs and don’t come close to that number — an average crowd of 16,518 marked 19th in the league last season.So, that goes hand-in-hand with winning. The Union are working on that. At least, they better be. Buy better players, win more games, draw bigger crowds, get on TV. Got it.

Still, Philly lacks one thing that is a lot trickier to obtain — something you can’t manufacture and something you can’t buy: a true rival.

Rivals are always on

Rivalry week is consistently a huge deal for the league. The best matchups, the biggest clubs, TV commercials, and promotions. Hell, it has its own beer sponsor. If Heineken is paying to have its name on a week of the calendar (not a league or a team jersey, but a week) they must have some data that says people watch those matches. With certain matchups like Portland-Seattle, New York-New York and LA-LA, you can forget about records or injuries — the stands will be full and the cameras will be on.

That’s what the league wants. Rivalry games and huge crowds. To no fault of its own, that’s what the Union don’t have. There’s no match on their schedule that TV executives circle every year and say “we need to be there.” It’s the one thing that makes perfect sense and the one thing that you can’t blame anyone for. If you don’t have a rival (Orlando, Minnesota) you better draw big crowds. If you don’t draw big crowds (Red Bulls), you better win and win consistently. Or, you better have a rival like New York City that guarantees you two national broadcasts each season.

One of those things can change for the Union, and a 15-win season in 2018 is a good start. Fabian will draw Mexican fans, boost attendance and hopefully lead to some wins as well. The rivalry, though, is something that just kind of has to happen on its own.

Maybe that’s true of the Union on TV, too.

10 Comments

  1. Scott of Nazareth says:

    At a guess, 10 years of being at best a fringe playoff team, to go along with your other points that basically highlight a decade of “Meh” for the Union.

    FC Cincy is a shiny new toy, and it looks like 5 out of the 7 are home games where they get 25K attending, which I’m sure is an optic MLS and its TV partners want to push.

  2. I’m going to guess that ESPN and FOX Sports programmers based their schedule on what teams drew ratings in the past. Union probably just don’t do much for national viewing audiences. Cincinnati makes sense as the exception because you can safely bet neutrals will be curious in the new team.

    That schedule, of course, was drawn up pre-Fabian. If he gets off to a good start, interest in the Union will likely climb. Networks might try to pick up and extra couple of Union games. We’ll see.

  3. Peanut Gallery says:

    Good take. I’d add that Union have been wildly inconsistent in their performances… or better described: watchability. (Is that a word?)
    .
    There were a number of matches where the Union played beautifully for large chunks of the 90 minutes.
    .
    But there were also matches that were… hard to watch. That, in combination with your factors, would give me pause if I were making those selections.

  4. I’d guess that a major factor (at least for home games) is how empty the stadium has been. They can announce attendance topping 16,000, but they obviously had barely half that for many games last season. Empty seats and an unhappy fan base do not sell the league or sport as an up and coming contender. Now, clearly there’s a bit of buzz around recent moves, so the crowds should look better right from the start this year…but that didn’t become clear until after the television decisions were made.

    • That was especially the case last year when they were on national TV against Sporting KC. Someone thought putting the Union on at the same time as the Eagles was a good idea. Given how empty the stadium was for that, combined with the fact that the Union put their B team out for a nationally televised game probably doesn’t help get more.
      .
      On the other hand, personally I’d rather they were not on national TV for home games since then I usually have to call fan services to get the microphone blocking my view removed.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    reapeth what thy soweth.

    • El Pachy,
      Curious but in short term aren’t you contradicting yourself?
      You don’t care about trophies and hope Tanner’s legacy is about development of players.
      But club needs investment to do that.
      A team that wins, puts butts in seats and attracts quality players to its academy and farm team.
      Academy by itself is mining 70-80 players hoping for an almiron. Like playing Powerball.
      Keep in mind it is early yet. We don’t have in USA the eyeballs on soccer.
      MLS academies are not moneymakers and hard to see if even if paid transfer fees for academy players that would change for many. Especially if FA and Bexit forces EPL to lower number of non-homegrown.
      Some MLS teams even successful ones want to close their academies and usl teams.
      A couple more losing seasons can union afford to keep their academy or USL team going? National TV exposure helps—lack of it is serious problem beyond your pithy statement above and your casual disregard for need to win at first team.
      Besides as DA can tell you, they are leaking talent to new ecnl teams that allow high school play. In USA, the draw of high school and college sports is huge.
      Soccer fans like yourself are quick to dismiss high school and NCAA instead of trying to reform them—in order to grow sport both in eyeballs and increasing talent pool, this is likely a mistake.
      Academy and usl teams need to make money to continu. geography, demographics, lagging behind 5-6 other sports in popularity in US means we should be more open to ideas instead of dismissing them outright because “that’s not how Europe does it”.
      UnionGoal

  6. I’ll be honest here – as a 10-year season ticket holder I say this – I would much rather watch a national TV game in, say, Portland or Kansas City, with the stands full, the flags waving, and the singing the whole game. Talen Energy is a GREAT place to watch a game in person, but because of it’s set-up it just doesn’t sound or look good on national TV. And I watch all the Union road games as well, and there are definitely differences between the stadiums, no doubt.

  7. There ownership doesn’t care so why would the national media? Agree with the prior post… not much excitement in the stands- not should there be.

  8. In age #Metoo, news bosses resigning, and Virginia governor’s past, there is more sensitivity to not only being offensive but also awareness to what is offensive.
    A Texas politician recently apologized for calling AOC a “bimbo” as backlash followed for using a “sexist” term.
    Not saying this is reason for less games on tv but I think it they put “bimbo bakeries” or another brand such as Thomas or entenmann’s it probably couldn’t hurt.
    UnionGoal

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