Versus could be the answer to the league's low TV ratings.
For the United States as a whole, the World Cup was a huge success: massive TV ratings, some relative achievement for the U.S. team, and perhaps most importantly, for a month at least, soccer created an immense buzz and became a part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Major League Soccer, understandably, is looking to ride this tidal wave of good vibes and make a splash of its own. (Sorry, couldn't help the pun.)
Signs have been quite positive in 2010. Attendance is up, big-name players are arriving, and new stadiums are springing up across the country. There is still one aspect of the league that isn’t experiencing a boon, though, and that’s television ratings.
Viewership has remained flat on ESPN2, as MLS matches have averaged a 0.2 household rating through 14 games according to Nielsen. The 0.2 share, which translates to roughly 251,000 viewers per game, means MLS has lower numbers than, gasp….the WNBA.
Meanwhile, on Fox Soccer Channel, MLS games average about 53,000 viewers according to USA Today. For comparison, English Premier League matches on FSC averaged 142,000 viewers per match in 2009 and 84,000 in 2008. FSC’s coverage of Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal in January of this year drew 370,000 viewers- a record for the network.
Something needs to change and luckily for MLS, they have a golden opportunity to do just that.
The league’s television contract with Fox Soccer Channel is up at the end of this season, and MLS execs have been in preliminary discussions with Versus (aka the artist formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network) about becoming a broadcast partner.
The Outdoor Life Network launched in 1995 as and for ten years, broadcast predominately outdoor programming, like hunting and fishing.
In 2005, OLN started to undergo a complete image modification. They added extreme sports to their repertoire, purchased the rights to the National Hockey League from ESPN, and culminated the transformation by changing its name to Versus in 2006.
Since 2006, Versus has rapidly expanded its sports coverage blanket, and currently broadcasts, among others, college basketball, college football, UFC, IndyCar Racing and Davis Cup tennis.
American soccer fans should hope that MLS soccer becomes the next name in that roll call.
In a recent interview with SI.com, MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted his admiration for the job Versus has done with the NHL since its move in 2005. He also confirmed the league has been in discussion with Versus about purchasing MLS television rights, and will continue to do so. (Just to clarify, Versus would replace FSC. ESPN would still broadcast MLS games.)
Many have speculated the Versus talks are just a ploy by MLS to drive up the price FSC has to pay to renew their contract, but, to be honest, FSC doesn’t really deserve MLS anymore. Nor do they need it.
Fox Soccer Channel brings top European soccer to an American audience. That is what they do, and they do it pretty well. FSC's stable includes the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, and the UEFA Champions league.
As any regular watcher of FSC can tell you, MLS is something of the red-headed stepchild of the network. Even now, before any European leagues have started, there is no MLS programming on-air outside of the matches themselves. In the meantime, the schedule is littered with EPL-centric shows like Sky Sports News, Premier League World, and the inexplicable FA Community Shield Preview Show.
On FSC’s flagship show Fox Soccer Report, if one wants to see MLS highlights, they’ll usually have to sit through three or four commercial breaks full of Proactiv and hair-loss solution spots, and sometimes even the same EPL highlights twice.
And that’s not even to say anything of the matches themselves.
The less said about the broadcasters the better, and so, I’ll politely merely observe: they are bad. The camera angles are limited, the presentation is not always sharp. MLS fans deserve better.
Which brings us to Versus.
According to Nielsen, Versus is available in 74 million U.S. homes compared to about 37 million homes for Fox Soccer Channel, which is due in large part to Versus’ availability on basic cable packages.
Aside from the fact twice as many people have access to Versus than FSC, let’s look at some other ingredients Versus could bring to the table for MLS:
- Versus has been an innovator in broadcasting the NHL, incorporating microphones on players into their coverage as well as interviews with coaches on the bench during games. Not that these specific features would work for MLS necessarily, it just shows they aren’t afraid to try new things.
- Versus is available on HD, both for cable and satellite providers. Ask a Comcast subscriber how their FSC in HD looks. Now, prepare for a violent reaction.
- Unlike MLS on FSC, Versus offers comprehensive coverage of the NHL, including Hockey Central, their postgame highlights show, the NHL Draft, and the NHL Awards show.
- Versus is a proven commodity when it comes to driving up ratings. Versus' telecasts of Game 3 and 4 of this year’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged 3,369,000 viewers, up 5 percent from the same games last year. It wasn’t just the Finals, though. The first two rounds of the playoffs generated the highest ratings since Nielsen began tracking playoff viewership in 1994.
I’ll touch on one final point before I have to ask Versus to pay me for this article. Moving Major League Soccer to Versus would allow not only greater exposure, but exposure to a new, more diverse audience. Those who watch FSC are likely already soccer fans. The same probably can’t be said for Versus’ audience.
On FSC, MLS is the red-headed stepchild. On Versus, it could be the star. MLS would be only the second major professional American league of which the network owns the rights. Translation: it will be hyped, and hyped to spectators that may not watch soccer all that often.
After taking in an EPL game, watching an MLS game might seem like a chore. But watching an MLS game after watching an IndyCar race or a fishing excursion? This unlikely combination will hopefully be coming to a cable provider near you.