Media Microscope: Seeking flexibility, MLS moves away from national TV windows

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The league moved away from recent precedent when putting together its 2017 national TV schedule. Will it deliver better ratings?

When Major League Soccer announced its new national TV contract back in 2014, one of the most important advances it touted was the addition of weekly broadcast windows.

Prior to the new deal, the league’s research showed that an inconsistent schedule meant even die-hards struggled to keep track of when games were on national TV.

The introduction of weekly broadcast windows meant that would no longer be the case. With a Friday night match on UniMas and a weekly Sunday doubleheader at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN and 7 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, MLS would finally move closer to the habit-viewing that helps drive ratings of the NFL through the roof. 

When MLS announced its national TV schedule for 2017 — the third year of an eight-year contract with ESPN, Fox and Univision — two weeks ago, it became clear, however, that those weekly broadcast windows had mostly disappeared.

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In 2015, the first year of the new TV deal, ESPN or ESPN2 broadcasted 27 Sunday night matches starting between 3:30 and 5 p.m. ET. During that same window in 2016, there were 19 games shown. In 2017, that number will be 10.

Similarly, in 2015 Fox broadcasted 26 MLS games on Sunday starting between 7 and 7:30 p.m. ET. That number went down to 20 in 2016. This season, it will be just eight. 

Perhaps the biggest change this year is the virtual elimination of “Viernes de Futbol,” the weekly Friday night match on UniMas. In 2016 UniMas broadcasted 24 matches on Friday night, but in 2017 the Spanish network will show just three.

Why did UniMas and MLS say adios to Viernes de Futbol? It appears to be a simple matter of competition.

“Looking at the 2017 schedule, we realized that we had an opportunity to identify a new match window for UniMas that would be beneficial to the league and Univision,” MLS senior vice president Seth Bacon told Goal in an email.

“One of the benefits is this new window allows MLS to have a very clean TV window with very little soccer on TV to compete against our matches.”

The Friday night UniMas game faced weekly competition from Liga MX, which routinely posts stronger ratings than MLS. In an alternating Friday night schedule, Azteca carries Club Tijuana games while Univision Deportes broadcasts a Veracruz match the following week.

Half of Major League Soccer's Spanish-language telecasts will now be Saturday at 4 p.m. ET — a time slot that places MLS matches between European games in the morning/early afternoon and Liga MX games later at night.

Saturday games are more prevalent across all the league’s TV partners in 2017. After just one nationally televised Saturday game in 2015, there were six in 2016. This season, there will be 29 — almost all of which will take place in that early afternoon time slot designated to minimize competition.

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MLS is also quick to point out that although kickoff times of many Sunday matches have been adjusted, the doubleheader itself is staying intact.

“Making sure our fans know when and where to watch MLS on ESPN, FOX or Univision is very important to the league,” Bacon said. “We feel the moves we have made with the schedule in 2017 will continue to give us the best opportunity to bring our biggest games to our biggest audiences.

“It is worth noting that, while we do have more games on Saturdays, we have essentially maintained the same number of Sunday doubleheaders on ESPN and FOX in 2017 versus 2016 (12 versus 13).”

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Did the weekly broadcast windows actually improve ratings anyway? The answer is a bit muddled.

In 2015, ratings on UniMas and ESPN were up incrementally compared to 2014 — 3 and 4 percent respectively. Fox Sports 1 ratings were up 40 percent from NBCSN the previous year, but it's an apples-to-oranges comparison due to the larger number of homes FS1 reached at the time. 

Last season, TV ratings were up by a much larger margin: 25 percent on ESPN and 37 percent on Fox. Those numbers though, were partially inflated due to ESPN showing almost all of its matches on ESPN instead of occasionally on ESPN2, and using Euro 2016 matches as a buffer for some MLS games. Fox Sports numbers went up in part because it televised MLS games on its Fox broadcast network for the first time ever. Numbers on UniMas, though, were basically stagnant: just over a 1 percent growth from 2015.

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There should be fewer mitigating factors in 2017, which means this season will be a good test of whether the league’s flexibility with its TV schedule will pay off.

“We are confident in our schedule and think we will grow our audience from the record numbers we saw in 2016,” Bacon said. “We are well positioned for this goal.”

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