Monday, September 10, 2012

MLS On NBC: Major League Coverage

Article by Anders Aarhus

In the early days it was the holy grail of MLS: the big TV contract.

As MLS has evolved and grown over the years the focus has shifted from simply finding a TV provider to finding a provider that would promote and showcase the league the same way other major sports in America are. Enter NBC. MLS’ new agreement with the network looks extremely promising and so far the returns year have been positive.

To take a more in-depth look let’s first break down MLS’ TV history before delving into the ratings and evaluating NBC’s coverage.

MLS TV History 

MLS debuted on ESPN and the league’s original deal included games on ABC with a supplementary highlights and review show “MLS Wrap” on ESPN2. However, both “MLS Wrap” and the coverage on ABC were dropped early in the league’s history leaving ESPN as the sole English-language provider (Galavision held rights for several years) and then the only provider.

MLS smartly solved this problem by creating its own outlet for viewers with the Shootout Package, the predecessor to MLS Direct Kick and MLS Live. The league also tied MLS rights to those of the US Men’s National Team to create a more enticing package for broadcasters.

In 2006 MLS agreed to a five-year deal with FOX Soccer and an eight-year deal with ESPN. The ESPN deal originally saw games broadcast on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons, but Thursday night broadcasts are no longer a part of the package.

The breakthrough came August 2011 when MLS signed a three-year deal with NBC. Under the new agreement NBC will broadcast 45 MLS games and 4 USMNT games each year. Thirty-eight of the league ties, three playoff matches and two USMNT games will be on the newly branded NBC Sports Network (formerly know as Versus) while two regular season games and two playoff games will be broadcast on the main NBC network, changed to "marking MLS' first return to network TV .

To sum it up: MLS will be in more homes over the next three years with high quality (more on that coming) broadcasts. For context, Fox Soccer had 38.5 million subscribers last season while NBC Sports has over 75 million. That’s the kind of exposure the league needs.


Despite the buzz and excitement from all involved with MLS, the first returns on ratings for NBC broadcasts were disappointing. According to the now defunct twitter account TV Sports Ratings; the debut game on NBC Sports drew just 82,000 viewers. However, it’s been only good news since then. The second game on the network saw 145,000 people tune in, according to the NBCSportsPR Twitter page. In March, a Philadelphia – Columbus game drew 139,000 viewers despite competing against a Barcelona game on ESPN in the same time slot.

An Aug. 4 article from The New York Times’ Goal blog reported that “Nearly twice as many people are watching MLS on NBC Sports Network than watched it on Fox Soccer to this point in the 2011 season – and the numbers have been increasing.” This is obviously excellent news for MLS and the numbers look even better for games in important markets. From the same Goal blog article: “The Dallas-Los Angeles match on July 28 drew an audience of nearly 400,000.” Plagued by injuries for much of the season Dallas has hardly been a marquee draw (sans their recent return to health and subsequent return to form) making the viewership numbers for the game even more impressive.

True tests of viewership are still to come, the first of which is Sept. 15 when Seattle hosts Portland in the first ever MLS game on NBC’s main station. There will be two additional matches, Chicago vs. New York and New York vs. Philadelphia, on the main NBC channel before the playoffs. Drawing well for those games would be a huge PR boost for both NBC and MLS, showing that American soccer can succeed on a major network. In addition, the playoff games are a perfect chance for MLS to showcase itself and, with do or die matchups between top teams guaranteed, there’ll be no excuses for the lack of a significant TV audience.

Regardless of what numbers look like over the coming weeks the “MLS on NBC” experiment will ultimately be defined by the whole rather than the individual parts. One Yahoo article cited two “in the know individuals” who said the 100,000-viewer mark was the “unspoken over/under number. Anything over 100,000 would be considered a win for both the network and the league and could also result in more games airing on both NBC Sports and NBC in later years.” Assuming that’s true, MLS looks to be in good shape considering the last reported viewership numbers were over the 100,000 mark. Hopefully a strong push during the stretch run will see those numbers get even better.

Quality of Coverage 

This is where NBC truly shines. Many an American soccer fan has noted networks like ESPN and Fox dumbing down soccer, assuming their audience knows nothing. FOX was the worst offender with cringe-worthy coverage of this year’s UEFA Champions League final that included NFL reporters who were clearly out of their element. Fox Soccer’s problem wasn’t material, but rather effort and investment in MLS. When the league renegotiated its deal with Fox part of the agreement was that the network would increase and improve its coverage of MLS with pre and postgame shows. While this did lead to “Soccer Night in America,” many fans were disappointed with what was essentially a glorified highlight reel.

Kyle Martino
In contrast, NBC has done everything right from the beginning. They hired revered play-by-play man Arlo White and paired him with former MLS midfielder Kyle Martino. A pre and post game show are done live with host Russ Thaler and analyst Robbie Earle. But most importantly, NBC has taken their presentation of MLS games seriously. As White noted in an interview with Sounder at Heart, “They [NBC Sports} are so thorough. Nothing is left to chance and there are high expectations of you as an individual. Seeing the templates and the desire to provide quality broadcasting has been a joy to be a part of.” To see a network treat MLS the same way they do other big time sports is a breath of fresh air.

And in terms of ratings, NBC isn’t worried. In the SAH interview, White was also asked whether he pays any attention to ratings. “It’s not something I do look at to be honest with you.” he said, “Our primary focus is getting it right. It’s kind of a “build it and they will come” scenario I suppose. We can provide the quality of service and quality of broadcast. If we produce, and ESPN is exactly the same thing, quality broadcasts then hopefully people will tune in because it’s creating a must-watch TV scenario. Hopefully the games and the quality we’re bringing to it will resonate throughout the sport public in this country.” Again the fact that NBC cares most about providing quality presentation over all else has to be encouraging to MLS and soccer fans in America.

The “on field product,” so to speak, has been top notch. White and Martino have displayed great chemistry from the beginning while Thaler and Earle’s roles have fit in well. Stationing Martino in-between the benches, like NBC does with hockey broadcasts, has also added a unique perspective. There have been numerous times where tactical shouts from coaches have been noted and then analyzed by Martino, creating an extra bit of in-depth coverage fans can’t get anywhere else.


What NBC has done for MLS less than one year into the agreement is nothing short of spectacular. Ratings have steadily improved and, thanks to the quality of promotion from the network, should continue to grow. More importantly, the high standard of coverage has indeed made MLS on NBC “must watch TV” as Arlo White hoped for. MLS has come a long way since its inception and finding a legitimate TV provider is another huge step in the quest to become a top league.


  1. "while two regular season games and two playoff games will be broadcast on the main NBC network, marking MLS’ first return to basic cable."

    Since when has NBC been "basic cable"? It's network TV.

  2. My bad. That originally said network TV, but I must have changed it by mistake.

  3. THere's also three games on NBC.New York/Chicago, New York/ Philly, and Portland/Seattle