MLS Tries to Make Waves on Air

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

This evening will not mark the first time D.C. United has played on a weeknight. Over the years, because of stadium and scheduling issues, MLS teams have had to squeeze a random Wednesday or Thursday match onto their calendar.

No one particularly liked them. Coaches and players felt they interrupted the weekly routine. Marketing departments found it difficult to sell tickets. Consequently, games lacked intensity, turnouts were small, TV ratings were even smaller and, by the time the weekend matches rolled around, most fans had forgotten the midweek games had ever taken place.

But because of a new broadcasting package -- a deal that is earning the league an estimated $20 million per year in rights fees -- Thursdays have suddenly become an important date in MLS.

United's match tonight against the New England Revolution at RFK Stadium will be shown on ESPN2, which is attempting to make Thursdays a signature night for soccer and broaden the appeal of the league beyond weekend evenings.

MLS also has contracts with Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Español for Saturday broadcasts, with Spanish-language network Univision for Sunday games and with HDNet, Mark Cuban's high-definition outlet, to show primarily weekend matches.

"It's a very important development in the life span of this league and it will be, I think, one of the things we look back on that has taken MLS to the next level," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said of the TV contracts.

What MLS might lose at the gate playing on odd days and at odd times, it gains in national exposure and presentation. The league's broadcast partners will provide coverage for 110 of 195 regular season matches.

Although ESPN has been showing MLS games throughout the league's 11-year history, mostly on Saturday afternoons, this is the first year the company has taken control of production, advertising and promotion, and offered matches on the same night throughout the year.

In the past, MLS produced its own games -- and it showed. "It just feels like a big-time sports television property now," Garber said.

Besides providing the league with prime-time exposure, ESPN has added several features in an attempt to improve presentation -- high-definition broadcasts, a sky-cam for some matches, a virtual offside line, a ball tracer, a sideline reporter and three commentators.

National ratings have remained stagnant over the same period last year -- a 0.2, which equals 223,000 households -- but in the 18-to-34 male demographic, the numbers have increased 100 percent.

"It's a slow-growth proposition for us, but we think it's a sound approach so far, both on our end and MLS's," said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's vice president for programming. "It's a long-term strategy. It's not something where we are looking for ratings to triple this year."

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