Major League Soccer is approaching what might be the most important period in the league's near 20 year history. The league is planning expansion beyond 20 teams and the joint New York Yankees-Manchester City New York City FC venture with franchises throughout the southeast. More star power may be on its way with LeBron James and David Beckham being mentioned as possible owners of a new team in Miami, not to mention what may happen in Atlanta and Orlando.
What is even more important than new expansion franchises are the league's television rights deals that are up for renewal after the 2014 season. These negotiations have already been called the most important in league history by FC Dallas owner Dan Hunt and the stakes couldn't be higher.
To add more talent to the league, and thus more fans and television eyeballs, MLS needs more revenue from television. Currently, the league makes $18 million dollars from both ESPN and NBC. As negotiations have already gotten underway with the league's current partners, SBJ has reported the league looks to at least double that figure to $40-50 million dollars per year for the joint package of MLS rights and US National Team games.
There's one major wrinkle in those best laid plans - MLS's ratings have tanked this year. 20 matches on ESPN dropped a troubling 29% in viewership to 220,000 per game during the regular season off the league's best year on Bristol airwaves last season. Audiences also fell 8% in games on NBCSN to 112,000. This puts MLS beneath other second tier properties like the WNBA, IndyCar, and boxing. With the league's pivotal negotiations currently being opened, the timing couldn't be worse for MLS to see its TV ratings fall off a cliff.
There are many theories abound from the soccer community on how MLS can fix its television ratings conundrum. The truth is the league and its fans have to accept the fact that MLS isn't as attractive of a TV product as the English Premier League or UEFA Champions League because the quality of play there is much higher and it makes no difference whether a match is played in Dallas or Dortmund from your living room. Attendance has been encouraging for the league, but they've always struggled in transitioning that success at the gate to television screens.
Just how can Major League Soccer break through on television? It's not going to happen overnight, but there are some immediate, realistic fixes that could greatly improve the league as a television product. With MLS and professional soccer in America at a crossroads, here are five helpful suggestions on how to help the domestic league on television.