To say that I haven't been a fan of the 2013 MLS Playoffs would be an understatement. And this has nothing to do with my beloved New England Revolution being ousted in the Conference Semi-Finals.
No, this has to do with the overall coverage of the MLS Playoffs on a national scale, or better yet, the amount of coverage it hasn't gotten on a national scale. Between the league and its national broadcast partners in ESPN and NBC Sports Network, there's a lot of blame to go around here. And in other shocking news, TV ratings for MLS are down across the board, I wonder why.
Perhaps it has to do with the lack of consistent start times for MLS games, or perhaps the lack of studio coverage for pre- and post- game. Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that neither network successfully promotes the MLS Playoffs during their other programming.
This is all because, besides the obvious problems of midweek games and broadcasting on two different national cable sports stations, the powers that be in MLS have decided on quite frankly the worst possible schedule for any casual sports fan to follow.
Seriously Don Garber, find out who made the 2013 Playoff schedule and the person besides yourself who approved said schedule and fire them. This schedule is a travesty. Your first round teams were subjected to playing three games in eight days; In Houston's case because they advanced to the Conference Finals, the Dynamo played four games in eleven days. All to accommodate a FIFA International Fixture date (which I'm okay with) and some silly week off between the 2nd Leg of the Conference Finals and the MLS Cup Final. This means that the teams in the MLS Playoffs go from three to four games in eight to eleven days to playing three games in a month, counting the first leg of the Conference Final in both cases. Oh, and I didn't even mention the fact that New York and Houston played their two-legged Conference Semifinal series with only two days rest while Seattle and Portland had four.
The league needs to be capitalizing on the fact that there were two really good games over the weekend and it's final could be a week away. Instead, it's going to be two weeks away and any momentum gained by the average fan not watching Sunday Night Football will surely be lost. All because of a scheduling quirk.
But that can't be as bad as not televising both second legs of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, can it? I mean, when you have a chance to televise two playoff series that go into extra time, you simply must choose to instead broadcast poker on ESPN and NHL regular season games on NBCSN, right? Well, that's what happened on Wednesday, November 6, 2013. ESPN broadcasted the final table of the World Series of Poker and NBCSN had its regular NHL Rivalry game. That makes the most sense, because I'm sure that both of those games would out draw MLS individually. But this isn't about the individual ratings, or at least it shouldn't be.
The fact that a lot of New Englanders were left in the dark for that second leg due to a local broadcasting conflict with a NBA/Boston Celtic broadcast is also disheartening. With the Revolution bumped to an alternate channel that many homes in the area don't have, fans were left with few options to watch the game. Some fans likely turned to MLS Live, but had to sign up for about $15 just to see one game, since all of the remaining MLS Playoff games would be blacked out due to national broadcast restrictions. It would have been nice to see MLS lift those online blackout restrictions and allow all fans to watch those games live in lieu of a national broadcast. Alas, that didn't happen, but the problems with the MLS Playoffs run much deeper than just not broadcasting all the games.
The lack of MLS Playoff promotion on NBCSN and ESPN is staggering. No, that 15-30 second "All or Nothing" promotional ad NBCSN runs that says "be phenomenal or be forgotten" is beyond generic and I'm not even counting it. When it's played, and I've seen several variations of it including the current one starring Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis and Sporting Kansas City defender Aurelien Collin, it doesn't do enough to promote the game. There's only the piped in promotional speech in the background (which makes it sound like an Adidas or Dick's Sporting Goods ad) and zero verbal mention of the fact that the MLS Playoffs are happening, save some font at the end of the advertisement.
Where's Arlo White voicing some highlights to promote the game? Where's the excitement? In all the games White did this season there are no good highlights of Houston or SKC from your number one play-by-play guy? There's nothing in that ad that excites me about watching the game, or in my opinion, that would draw in an average soccer or sports fan to the MLS Playoffs. NBCSN did a much better job with their advertisements for the United States Olympic Curling Trials.
(I wish I had video of the curling commentator screaming "It's a double knockout!" Alas...)
Okay, in all fairness, I love Olympic Curling, but that's not the point. If you're going to promote the Eastern Conference Playoffs and you choose Aurelien Collin to represent SKC over Graham Zusi, you're doing it wrong. I like Collin and respect him as a player and MLS veteran, but this is the USA and we need to promote our own players, particularly national team players like Zusi.
And ESPN in particular needs to do a better job of picking a consistent broadcast time since their ratings dropped substantially this year. Maybe 18 out of the 20 broadcasts shouldn't be on Sundays competing with the NFL, or maybe ESPN shouldn't broadcast mainly West coast games at 9PM or later, because hardly anyone on the East coast is staying up until 1AM for those ridiculous 11PM start times. But those are scheduling quirks that can, in theory, be ironed out with the league, but as far as promoting the league, that's another story.
Neither NBCSN nor ESPN devoted any extended pre- or post-game coverage for any of the previous playoff games. Yes, ESPN does have a Boot Room Extra post-game sometimes, but it really needs to put that kind of programming on it's main networks. Perhaps even tying it into their daily show ESPN FC, but internet only programming doesn't enlarge your audience, it only tells you how many diehards you have watching online.
MLSSoccer.com tried to fill this void, with a rotating three man studio booth including Greg Lalas, Simon Borg and Andrew Wiebe with Samantha Yarock acting as the on-field reporter after the game. While this attempt did provide some pre- and post-game coverage, it's just clearly not the studio quality that MLS needs to promote their brand and postseason as a whole. I do, however, give full credit to Lalas and his staff for going the extra mile for the diehards out there who want to see this type of coverage for MLS and I personally have enjoyed their insight.
But the league can't simply rely on live internet steams to attract new fans. It needs a bigger footprint nationally with its broadcast partners.
But, with two national networks owning broadcasting rights to MLS, NBCSN and ESPN should both be tasked with doing pre- and post-game for their respective broadcasts. Clearly, with other commitments to cover on both networks, that isn't possible and it begs the question: Why? Neither network went out of its way to advertise these games, and it appears that MLS games are more of a burden than a wanted commodity; the broadcast start of the Seattle-Colorado game was almost in jeopardy due to the end of an NHL game on NBCSN. Let's also not forget the start of the 2013 MLS All-Star Game was delayed to show a national Babe Ruth baseball game. Since ESPN and NBCSN can barely fit in the MLS Playoff games on their own, it's no wonder why pre- and post-game coverage is all but abandoned by the two networks.
But this is completely unacceptable as far as I'm concerned during the playoffs. The MLS Playoffs are the pinnacle of the league, and should be covered as such. Instead, it's being treated as any other ordinary regular season game. It's clear from the ratings numbers that ESPN and NBCSN can't simply rely on just MLS fans to carry their broadcasts. The networks need to attract existing soccer fans of the EPL or attract general sports fans to their broadcasts.
I can live with NBCSN picking up the home feeds for their national broadcasts in the early rounds, and some actually like the local feel that give the games. It's just not the way to build a brand nationally. One of my favorite games this season for the Revs was the 5-0 thrashing of the LA Galaxy, not because of the result, but because Arlo White was calling the game's play-by-play for NBCSN. I love White, and ESPN's Ian Darke, Taylor Twellman, Alexi Lalas and the other personalities who work on the national MLS and USMNT broadcasts, and those hosts, analysts and play-by-play announcers are individuals that soccer fans around the country can identify with. Yes, Kasey Keller did a fine job on the Sounders broadcast, and he's done games on ESPN before, but he's still holding a Sounders microphone and for a national broadcast that can't be acceptable to anyone.
In my opinion, to be taken seriously on a national level by the average sports fan - or even an average, non-MLS soccer fan - means being more consistent with your coverage. That means pre- and post-game shows, weekly recap spots, and familiar faces in-studio week after week like the now-rebranded Fox Soccer Channel crew of Rob Stone, Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda. Regardless of your opinions on individual broadcasters, consistency week after week can build the MLS brand nationally. Major networks having a hodge-podge of local commentators with no support from the major network just makes it seem like a haphazard effort that is secondary to other commitments.
All of the good things I'm asking for here happen for the most part with United States National Team (although the outdoor/hunting programming leading into USA-Austria last week was comical), English Premier League, and UEFA Champions League coverage and the consistent schedule and quality of extra programming is a big reason why those games have become very popular in the United States. In time, that extra programming, detail and quality of production can help grow MLS in a similar fashion.
The facts are that NBCSN has the programming space before MLS games to play reruns of Brad Davis' "MLS 36," and as much as I love that series, it would be better served having a full studio pre- and post-game show. The idea is not just to bring in an MLS audience. They're already watching. The idea is to bring in soccer audience and a general sports audience that over time will continue to watch MLS and grow the brand on a national level.
As of right now, that's not happening. Ratings are down because MLS and its broadcast partners are not doing enough to grow the MLS brand nationally. There's not enough promotion of the league on ESPN or NBCSN and there's certainly no consistency in any of the broadcasts. Maybe the answer is to have one network broadcast league games nationally or to pick a day, maybe Friday nights, to have some kind of MLS doubleheader. NBCSN could certainly broadcast an MLS game after it's weekend EPL coverage, perhaps attracting those fans already watching soccer to stay and watch MLS.
Whatever the answer is, I do know that it's not what's happening right now. That's because right now, the MLS Playoffs are a nightmare for the average fan.
It's just a shame that the average fan doesn't know it, because they're probably not watching anyway.
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