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Began In '96

Major League Soccer’s final frontier

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By Zach Ricchiuti

The MLS has done a wonderful job of embracing technology. But the final frontier remains television, and without it, the league will continue to struggle.

As the ratings for NBC’s Major League Soccer programming roll in, perhaps the only way to characterize the partnership’s early days is as a disappointment. Television remains a tough nut to crack, especially for U.S. soccer.

It’s a problem that’s emerged rapidly in the last decade: other nations like England, Spain and Italy provide hours of soccer coverage each day, and still have trouble keeping up with demand. There’s SKY, Setenta, beIn Sport and BT Sport, to name a few, all of which skyrocketed in popularity with the ’90s-era rebrandng of the English Premier League. Highlight shows and 24-hour soccer news is wrapped around the match broadcasts, bringing in billions of dollars in these major markets.

Yet as professional soccer expanded beyond its original borders, its broadcasting sources failed to keep up. And so fans in the U.S., Southeast Asia, Africa and South America have instead turned to the internet to fill the void. Despite legacy broadcasting companies’ efforts to shut down illegal streams and online television channels, the internet has become a refuge for those eager for greater access to the sport. Media outlets, blogs and even the clubs themselves have in turn rushed to feed that hunger online.

MLS has been on the forefront of this “alternative screen” movement. It’s repeatedly proved able to adapt and creatively market its product through different channels, and created an effective platform online by embracing the internet’s capabilities. While the Barclays’ Premier League polices YouTube, pulling down any copyrighted material, the MLS has gone the other way and offered its own HD-quality highlights for every match. It followed that with a mobile app, and developed it into what is likely one of the best of all the leagues in the world.

But the ultimate goal is still television, with its promise of the kind of mass audience enjoyed by the NFL or NBA. And there, MLS has had significantly more trouble. Prior to its deal with NBC, the sport didn’t even have a home. ESPN halfheartedly broadcast a “game of the week” that rated high in production value but lacked the support of the pregame and postgame shows that have become part of the fabric of other sports programming. Add to it that ESPN often put MLS games up against ratings giants like American Idol, and it’s unsurprising that the league never gained much traction.

With NBC, at least, there is hope. It’s similarly gone all-in on the internet, providing free streams of every Barclays Premier League game. And it is committed to producing MLS programming in a way that ESPN or even Fox Soccer never managed to do. Its “MLS Insider” show packages highlights and news with quality production, providing coverage that goes deeper than simply airing matches. Consequently, it’s managed to generate storylines around the sport. Recent shows have profiled talented young players like Diego Fagundez, reported on Eddie Johnson’s troubled past and featured promising coaches like the New York Red Bulls’ Mike Petke.

Doing that is important in creating an identity that the league might be able to further develop. But that depends on whether people are watching in the first place. As MLS mulls further expansion, it needs to to support itself through better television ratings.

What can MLS do to ensure that its visibility improves? For a start, it should increase the salary cap and invest a significantly larger portion of revenues in attracting star players. Clint Dempsey is a great presence in Seattle, but the league needs more big names to offset falling attendance in major markets like D.C., Los Angeles and Houston. Already fluent on the internet and finally supported by a strong television lineup, it seems the MLS only needs that next big story to propel it into the general consciousness.

Zach Ricchiuti is a contributor and resident soccer expert for Began in ‘96.