BRISTOL, Conn. – When it comes to MLS, John Skipper isn't terribly concerned about ratings.
Growth is good and retraction isn't – a belief that made 2009 “a rebound year” after MLS viewership numbers fell off in 2008, according to ESPN's executive vice president, content and general guru on all things branded as ESPN across a variety of mediums – but the focus remains on long-term viewership accumulation rather than short-term gains from week to week.
Except in one instance.
“The ratings will be bad if they don't play,” Skipper said with a smile when asked about the potential impact of a work stoppage during a media availability session to promote ESPN's World Cup coverage on Friday. “I'll say that definitively.”
Bad isn't a word usually associated with soccer around the Bristol campus of the Worldwide Leader in Sports these days. In fact, the sentiment is just about the opposite as the network prepares to devote more resources than ever before to its World Cup coverage from South Africa this summer.
Consider the comprehensive approach ESPN is taking to the first African World Cup as a statement of intent. Extensive manpower camped in South Africa at considerable expense, including a wealth of mainstream on-air talent and every match commentator for every game. Significant resources expended to acquire the services of the world's preeminent football play-by-play voice in Martin Tyler and a few European-based soccer pundits in Efan Ekoku, Ruud Gullit (cut out those snickers, Galaxy fans) and Steve McManaman to temporarily complement the internal stable of talent. Add in the acquisition of similarly experienced figures behind the scenes – ESPN imported noted director Grant Best from the U.K. for MLS matches this season – and the current attitude toward soccer at ESPN has evolved significantly from the days of the Dave O'Brien experiment and the force-fed storytelling during the previous four-year cycle.
Skipper said his network is still trying to marry the functional British approach to match coverage with the more contextual American tack, but noted that he believes soccer “doesn't need a vision from us” in order to be successful.
“Our goal is to figure out an authoritative and appropriate way to get into the American vernacular and get people excited about the game,” Skipper said. “It's (about) the game – whether it be La Liga, the World Cup, MLS or college soccer. We need to present the game in a way where people will love it and appreciate it like everybody in this room and everyone in the rest of the world does.”
The key for Skipper and ESPN remains finding a way to transfer the viewership in big-ticket items like the World Cup and the English Premier League to the domestic scene in greater numbers. In order to advance that goal, Skipper said ESPN plans to use its emphasis on the World Cup to increase interest in its MLS property as it enters the fourth year of an eight-year, $64 million deal. ESPN2 will feature a MLS game as part of its 24 hours of coverage before Mexico and South Africa kick off the World Cup on June 11, while other tie-ins are also expected to help raise awareness.
If the ratings from 2009 are any indication, that awareness increased over the past year. ESPN saw its average viewership for MLS matches grow by 37,000 in 2009 (253,000 in '08 to 290,000 in '09) in a variety of time slots after moving MLS away from a disappointing two-year experiment on Thursday nights. While the overall number is essentially the same as the average viewership from 2007, MLS did reach a new high after it set a new record for single-game viewers on ESPN2 by enticing 700,000 viewers (0.5 rating) to watch the Western Conference final between Los Angeles and Houston. The network also posted a 29% gain in overnight viewership (0.9 in '09 v. 0.7 in '08) for MLS Cup 2009 despite the switch from ABC to ESPN.
Maintaining that resurgence and expanding those one-off moments over the course of a season could prove difficult for ESPN in 2010 with its focus on the World Cup and the potential absence of MLS' three largest stars. Noted television draws David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (particularly on ESPN Deportes) aren't around for the opening stages of the season, while Landon Donovan's future is decidedly up in the air. Skipper said ESPN will continue to lean on big markets and alluring stories – Skipper noted Philadelphia will receive plenty of coverage as the league's newest expansion team – to fuel viewership in their stead.
Replacing Beckham and Blanco may be important from a branding and advertising perspective, but Skipper said he believes MLS needs to continue to sign better players across the board to help the on-field product entice more viewers and compete with the overseas leagues.
“If they sign somebody prominent, it's a great story for us and we can build around it,” Skipper said. “It's just that they (need to) get better players in, too. (Players such as) Fredy Montero in Seattle, if they can find players like that. The soccer just has to get better. You'd like to have some big names to have some stories around, get a few more people to the stadiums and poke up in the ratings here and there, but as long as it just keeps getting better, we'll be fine.”
The relationship between ESPN and MLS – a partnership forged in 1996 and enhanced by the fee-paying rights deal struck prior to the 2007 season – remains strong. Skipper said he keeps in regular touch with MLS commissioner Don Garber and the league brass in New York City to stay in the information loop and noted that MLS executives “treat [ESPN] as real partners.”
One of the primary topics in those communications recently: the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. After drawing chuckles with his ratings quip, Skipper said he believes both sides will eventually reach a deal without any impact on the 2010 season.
“It's in nobody's interest to have a prolonged work stoppage here,” Skipper said. “I think they'll get that done.”
If Skipper's inclination is correct, he can shift away from the one potential ratings pitfall that may concern him to his continued interest in MLS' long-term development as a television property.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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