Thursday, March 15, 2012

The MLS Schedule Conundrum That, Well, Isn't A Conundrum

The 2012 Major League Soccer season kicked off this past weekend with a noticeable difference, the first match of the season was not broadcast on national television, in fact it wasn't till Sunday afternoon that an MLS match was broadcast nationally. While the realization of no national broadcast dawned somewhat late on many MLS fans, it did not go unnoticed on Saturday as fans scrounged to find free previews of either MLS's internet/cable season subscription packages or for an unsanctioned online feed. In recent years, MLS usually kicked off the season with a marquee match broadcast on ESPN2 on a Thursday evening, but such an option was not available since MLS started the season a week earlier than last year and its two English language national broadcast partners, ESPN and NBC Sports, were locked into broadcasting the various NCAA Conference Basketball Tournaments. In the past, MLS's opening match was often in competition with the NCAA Tournament, but CBS owns those television rights so ESPN could easily fit MLS into its broadcast schedule.

Not surprisingly, the fact that the MLS season seemed to start with a whimper instead of a bang resulted in two intertwined issues rearing their heads in some circles of MLS fandom: 1. the MLS schedule; & 2. the place of MLS in the US sports hierarchy.

I say these issues are intertwined because MLS fans often feel victimized in how MLS is treated by national broadcasters viz-a-viz how said broadcasters treat other sports. I lost count of the number of times last season a Twitter uproar occurred when some sporting event on ESPN went longer than its scheduled broadcast time, bleeding into a MLS broadcast. The reality of the sports broadcast business is that events sometimes take longer than expected and its the rare occasion that a network can or will break away from an ongoing sporting event to go to another sporting event.

Then there is the other often complained about issue of MLS starting its season at the zenith of the college basketball season and having its playoffs in the middle of the NFL and college football seasons. While I know some MLS fans are general sports fans and grew up watching other sports, I also know there is a good number of MLS fans who do not follow many of the other professional/collegiate sports that get the bulk of the American sports fan's attention. So for those who don't really follow other American sports here's something to keep in mind: there are only two truly "slow" periods on the American sports calendar.

The first slow period runs from early February into early March. This period starts after the Super Bowl and ends with the start of NFL free agency and NCAA Conference Tournaments. During this period you have NBA, NHL, and college basketball, but from a national perspective those leagues are in the doldrums and nothing else too exciting or earth shattering is occurring during this period.

The second slow period runs from late June into late July. This period essentially starts a little after the NBA Finals and runs till the start of NFL Training Camp. Yes, the MLB All-Star game takes place during this period, but it is not as big of an event as it used to be and this period of time marks the doldrums for MLB.

So, unless MLS wants to confine its season to these two short, slow periods on the US sports calendar, the league is going to find itself in competition with other sports when it comes to butts in the seats and eyes on the tv screen. Instead of focusing on the perceived slights towards MLS by its national broadcast partners, MLS fans need to keep it all in perspective. They need to remember that all of the professional leagues in the US fight for national broadcast airspace, and that all of the professional leagues in the US rely heavily on regional broadcasting for the bulk of their broadcast coverage. This includes the NFL, because not all of its Sunday games are available in all markets, many are only shown in certain regions of the country. The fact that there was a small battle over a portion of MLS national broadcast rights, a battle that has resulted in NBC Sports getting an MLS deal, is something that MLS fans should take as a positive. While there is some concern

I know there is a huge emphasis in MLS fandom and journalism to "grow the sport," but, in the end, the growth of the sport is going to have less to do with national broadcasts or competition from other American sports. The key to growing the sport is putting a good product on the pitch, a product that's quality will translate to televised matches, even if those matches are only televised on regional sports networks.

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