Major League Baseball, as well as other sports organizations, has come under criticism over the years for scheduling postseason games late at night.
MLS deserves the same scrutiny.
For the third consecutive year, the league will stage the championship game on a Sunday night. TV coverage, which dictates the starting time, won’t begin until 9 p.m. Eastern. Kickoff is set for 9:25 p.m. A match ending in regulation will conclude around 11:20. Extra time pushes it to almost midnight. If penalty kicks are required, the calendar flips to Monday in the East.
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Such timetables are barely tolerable for the NFL, which attracts the largest U.S. sports audiences by a wide margin. Those times certainly shouldn’t be accepted in MLS, a league that has grown by leaps and bounds over 16 seasons but is still struggling to win over casual sports fans, not to mention U.S.-based supporters of elite foreign leagues.
The late kickoff on a school night also deters younger fans, whom have grown up with MLS and are ripe for life-long commitment to clubs and the league as a whole.
From a TV standpoint, there’s no perfect day or time for MLS. No one watches anything on Friday nights (see ratings for “Chuck” on NBC). Saturday afternoons and evenings are for college football. Sunday afternoons belong to the NFL. A Sunday evening match faces the fewest conflicts: an NFL game. (This weekend, the Philadelphia Eagles face the New York Giants.)
But competing programming shouldn’t dictate MLS Cup’s kickoff time. And for the first 14 years, it didn’t: ABC carried the match on Sunday afternoon. The NFL stomped MLS in the ratings, but the NFL stomps everything. Those who really wanted to watch soccer didn’t care what was on other outlets. And who knows, maybe NFL channel-surfers stumbled upon the match.
When coverage shifted to ESPN from ABC in 2009, the league and network decided to move the game into primetime. One could argue that Sunday night is a good slot: More people watch TV on Sunday evening than any other night of the week.
The problem for MLS is starting the game so late on a Sunday. Neither ABC nor any of the other three major networks would bump early-evening programming for an MLS game. (Maybe someday, folks.) So ESPN offers the best platform. This time of the year, however, the sports giant is committed to football: NFL highlights on “SportsCenter” from 7 to 8:15 p.m. and the college bowl countdown show (commence eye-rolling) from 8:15 until 9. ESPN then follows with 25 minutes of MLS pregame material.
NBC’s contract with MLS begins next season, but ESPN/ABC will retain the rights to the title game. Besides, NBC carries a Sunday night NFL game.
The late starting time in Toronto last year contributed to poor match atmosphere and a TV eye-sore as neutral fans left early to escape cold weather. With MLS likely to drop the prearranged venue format as early as next year, that issue would fade.
All of this scrutiny comes from an East Coast perspective. Those in the Central (8:25 local kickoff), Mountain (7:25) and Pacific (6:25) time zones probably don’t have any complaints. And this year, with clubs from the Central and Pacific in the final, fans with the most feverish interest are content.
But almost half of the U.S. population lives in the East, and by starting its biggest match so late, MLS is damaging an opportunity to grow its audience.