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."
Guglielmino said ESPN sees MLS as one part of its growing soccer portfolio, which includes the World Cup, U.S. national team games, European competitions and the NCAA College Cup.
ESPN chose Thursday to spotlight MLS because it works for league scheduling purposes -- teams have three or four days off after playing the previous weekend and, in the event of an approaching Sunday game, two days to prepare for the next match -- and it allows the network to dedicate the same night to MLS over a six-month regular season.
ESPN2 will carry 25 regular season games, the All-Star Game in July and three playoff matches. ABC showed the D.C.-Colorado season opener last month and will broadcast MLS Cup from RFK Stadium in November.
Concerned that Thursday games could be a tough sell at the box office, the league budgeted additional marketing funds to help drive fan awareness in the days leading to a match, MLS spokesman Will Kuhns said. Pregame concerts and other events have been planned, as well.
"Other pro leagues are able to be successful with midweek games, and I don't see any reason why we can't," Garber said.
"For any of the sub-major sports, the ability to create appointment viewing is critical," said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You want to give people a sense that they can turn on their TV at the same time and see a game. Whether Thursday night is the right night for MLS, that's to be determined."
Financially, MLS will not only collect a noteworthy rights fees, but save money on production costs. (This is not the first time the league has made money off a TV deal; HDNet has paid a small fee since 2005.)
Garber believes the partnerships with the Fox outlets and Univision are also vital to the league's long-term prosperity. Like ESPN, Fox has poured money into match presentation by offering pregame and postgame shows and on-site announcers (for many events, the network provides commentary from its studio in Los Angeles). Fox will carry 28 games.
Univision, which will utilize its Telefutura and Galavision channels for MLS games, has returned to the league after an eight-year layoff and is using MLS to augment its coverage of a sport that has a significant following among Spanish-speaking viewers. Most of its audience, however, is partial to Mexican league games. So to help sell MLS to the Latin American community, more than half of the 25 matches will involve teams with notable Latino support: Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles-based Chivas USA.
United will get its turn on Telefutura this Sunday when it hosts Chivas. (The game will also be shown locally on Comcast SportsNet.) While the TV-influenced schedule does place United in a national spotlight twice in four days, it also leaves the club little time to prepare for another game this weekend.
Asked if he thought the Thursday-Sunday TV combination was a good idea, United Coach Tom Soehn responded, "I'll tell you on Monday."