How Should Major League Soccer Respond to the English Premier League on NBC?

NBC’s three-year $250 million contract to broadcast English Premier League matches beginning next month poses a significant challenge to Major League Soccer. The 17 year old American league has been success by many measures: average attendance approached 19,000 last season, which is especially lucrative for the clubs who have built soccer-specific stadiums, the league has expanded to 19 teams and the 20th franchise, which will be in New York City, reportedly fetched a $100 million entry fee. The problem is that TV ratings have been stagnant. The EPL already draws far better numbers and matters could very well get worse now that NBC plans to dedicate unprecedented resources to covering its new property.

The positive for MLS is that extensive coverage of one of the world’s best soccer leagues will grow overall interest in the sport. Weekly coverage and promotion of high quality matches, as well as the supporting programs NBC plans to offer, will both attract and educate fans. This will be the first time that any US network has ever covered a soccer league with anything like the same level of resources normally devoted to the major American leagues and interest in the sport figures to grow substantially as a result.

The other short-term good news is that NBC will promote MLS matches during EPL broadcasts next season. That won’t be the case come 2015, unless NBC and MLS renew their contract.

MLS faces two major problems: the product they offer suffers by comparison and fans may continue to choose to dedicate their finite viewing hours to other leagues and other American sports. The major American sports do not have to compete with quality competitors in a global market, but MLS always will.

So what can MLS do?

MLS has three advantages. One, fans can actually attend matches. Two, many of them would prefer to support a local, American team. And three, broadcasts of MLS matches occur at more desirable times. The first EPL match starts at 4:30 a.m. on the West Coast. These advantages suggest that Americans would often choose MLS over EPL if other factors were close to being equal.

The biggest problem MLS faces is the quality gap. There is no short-term solution. The youth system still needs to be overhauled. The various governing bodies need to shift focus to developing 6 to 12-year-old players, make it profitable for coaches to work with the most talented prospects rather than those with the wealthiest parents, fully integrate Latino players and coaches into the system, experiment with ways to connect with African-American communities, and create a structure that discourages an overly physical approach to playing.

Even if many more quality players are produced, MLS will not benefit significantly unless it becomes far more able and willing to compete for their services. MLS simply cannot afford to acquire the best players, regardless of where they come from, and clubs have generally erred on the side of spending cautiously. This is quite understandable, especially considering the way the North American Soccer League spent itself into the ground, but MLS needs to push the envelope, putting improving the quality of players ahead of short-term profits. They may never be able to compete on fully equal terms with the biggest leagues in Europe, but significantly improving the standard of play should be sufficient for MLS to garner the interest of most American fans.

Solving these problems may take a while, which may explain why commissioner Don Garber has targeted 2022 for becoming a world-class league, but several interim steps can be taken: encouraging more attacking play; better educating fans, TV announcers and journalists; and packaging matches more palatably.

Promoting attacking play by appealing to the good will of coaches, or even owners, will not work because getting results is more valuable to a club than playing attractively. It is up MLS to take steps that compel teams to attack more. They should mandate that all fields are as wide as possible, crack down on physical play, and use five officials, instructing the two behind the goal to call penalties on defenders who commit fouls. One of the biggest misconceptions in soccer is that referees should let players play; lenient officiating really just allows the more physical players to bully the more talented ones.

The quality of American announcing has improved a great deal in the last 20 years, but most commentators still lack the ability to keep the viewer’s interest when matches are being played in midfield. There are around 15 meaningful chances to score in a 90-minute match, or about one every six minutes, which means announcers must find a way to keep viewers’ interest in the meantime. Similarly, the newspaper coverage of matches, especially the match reports, is pretty bad. Soccer is not an objective game, easily measured by numbers. Thus, writers must be educated about how to describe what is essentially a qualitative sport.

Finally, one way to educate the media, fans, and even many coaches would be to produce a highlight program that shows the key moments and is followed by expert analysis. 10-minute recaps would make every match seem interesting. This is important because many Americans would like to keep up with MLS, but they are unwilling to watch an entire 90-minute match. Such a program would give them that option while familiarizing them with MLS’s teams, players, and controversies.

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~ Ken Pendleton