Business Thoughts on the MLS Schedule

nbcMonths earlier than expected, Major League Soccer released its 2014 schedule on Monday.  In the last year of its television deals, the league served up a number of treats for its broadcast partners in its 2014 release.  MLS also provided a great treat for fans, by creating a regular Friday night match on NBCSN. This will provide both the network and supporters with the consistency they crave on a night that should provide limited sports competition, allow for fans to attend games and permit great atmosphere.

Some of the other key business points from the release include:   ESPN will televise 20 regular season games on its English language networks,with five of the games on the flagship network.   NBC, in its third season as a partner with MLS will televise 41 regular season games with 3 of those matches on the broadcast version of NBC.  There will also be two more MLS wrap-around shows on the NBCSN (although unfortunately there will be MLS Breakaway on opening day).   There will also be MLS/Premier League double headers which will allow for audiences to stay with soccer in late morning/early afternoon.  NBC also gets the benefit of some exclusive time slots eliminating competition with other MLS games (although the value of that concession from the league remains to be seen).

Univision will have 28 games over its various networks, including UniMas and Univision Deportes.  In Canada,  there will be more than 60 combined English and French language telecasts.

The league will again take a two week break for the group stage of the World Cup, while ESPN will showcase Portland and Seattle on the same day as the World Cup Final.  ESPN will wait almost three months for its first telecast, but will squeeze six games into July.

As we noted above, this is a big year for MLS and its network partners. Of course, these negotiations are already underway.   Recall what we noted in October, when SBJ reported that Major League Soccer had started negotiating its next television deal with current partners ESPN and NBC Sports.  SBJ reported that both networks were in exclusive negotiating windows to re-up their deals before the league’s rights are open to all bidders.  Recall that MLS intentionally set its deals to expire at the end of the 2014 season in order to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the World Cup next Summer.  However, the exclusive window provides ESPN and NBC an opportunity to parlay their current relationship into something longer term.

mlsIn 2011, the MLS schedule was released in February. Last year the schedule was released in the first week of January.  The 2013 version was released on Tuesday afternoon along with the list of nationally televised games.  As we do we every year, we are a taking a look at the schedule of games and some of the business aspects of the schedule release.

For business junkies, the most interesting part of the release is probably the announcement of nationally telecast games. New MLS partner NBC will televise 41 matches over the season, including three games on over-the-air television (same as last year).  Two of games on the NBC mothership will come at the end of the season and two of the three will feature DC United.  The late season games give the network to leverage its Sunday Night Football juggernaut to promote the matches.

Games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, NBC, NBCSN, Univision and UniMas (formerly Telefutura). In Canada, at least 30 games featuring Canadian clubs will air on TSN/TSN2 in English and RDS/RDS2 in French.  One of the new features this year will be the week 3 “rivalry week” which will feature 8 matches between regional rivals.   According to the league’s press release, “[m]ore than 90 percent of this year’s regular-season games are on weekends or holidays, and none will overlap directly with FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. During the summer months, most games will kick off no earlier than 4 pm local time in an effort to reduce the impact of hot weather.”

Not surprisingly, New York and Los Angeles have the most nationally televised games with Houston and Chicago a close second.  It is also not shocking to see New England and Columbus at the bottom of US based teams on American telecasts.  However, RSL’s limited appearances (3) is something of a surprise.  Rio Tinto usually shows well on television.

The start of the season is less than two months away, with two nationally televised games in English and one in Spanish.  The season concludes on Oct. 27, with five games, followed by playoffs.  MLS Cup 2013 will take place on Dec. 7 or 8.

The MLS Schedule: A Business Analysis

MLS unveiled its 2010 schedule and we thought it worthwhile to take a look at some of the business themes that emerged in the release.

1.  National TV: One third of all games will be nationally televised on FSC, ESPN & Telefutura.  This includes at least 25 ESPN HD games and 30 FSC HD games. Telefutura has moved its primary broadcast day from Sunday afternoon to Saturday afternoon (as an aside, this could provide a small attendance jump).  Chicago, Los Angeles and Philly each have 16 national broadcast dates, while the Revs and Wizards have 4 and 3 respectively.  This shows MLS and its broadcast partners are paying attention to atmosphere, camera angles and star power when assigning games.

2. Stadium openings: The opening of Red Bull Arena will be broadcast to a national audience as the Red Bulls host the Fire on the original ESPN.  The first grass match at BMO Field will be on ESPN2.  PPL Park (the new Union home) will open on June 27 as part of a soccer tripleheader that will rely on the World Cup broadcasts earlier in the day to pump viewership. Interesting to see how that strategy works…tough even for die-hards to get 6 hours of soccer in a day.

3.  World Cup:  The league will take a 2-3 week for the World Cup.  Every four years soccer fans wonder whether the World Cup will drive interest in MLS.  A good showing by the US could certainly increase interest in MLS.

4. Philly:  The Union will open on the road and then play a few games at “the Linc”, but the majority of their home games will come at PPL Park.  However, the home dates will be significantly back-loaded.  This is a strategy we support….the fewer games at the Linc the better.

5. Potpurri:  3 dates when all teams play.  Superliga will take place in July.  Seattle has the most home national TV dates (makes sense).

Business Bits: MLS Live is Back

computerMLS has announced its online  games package for 2009.  The product will cost $19.95 for the season and will include 150 games.  The video quality will double and fans will be able to edit and create their own highlight packages.  Read more about MLSLive and other new MLS digital initiatives in our interview with MLS Director of Digital Strategy Chris Schlosser.

MLS has also announced its national televison package for 2009.   Mark Cuban’s HDnet is noticably absent, but games will continue on ESPN, Fox Soccer and Telefutura.  Also absent, are any games on ABC.  As previously discusses, ESPN’s two year “Thursday Night Soccer” experiment has also been abandoned.   However, a quick look at the schedule shows that the League definitely put a premium on games that will show will in the stands.  Plenty of home games in Seattle, L.A. Derby games and Blanco dates.  Interestingly, RSL only hosts one home game and Gillette will never be featured.revs

This is probabaly the second smartest way to do it.  The best way would be to schedule the “big draw” games for Thursday night to keep “appointment viewing” for fans.   For the casual fan, it will be hard to find these games.