MLS 3.0: How MLS can use one of the NFL's greatest strengths to grow viewership

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Note from the author: To prevent confusion, I will refer to American football as ‘football’ and World football as ‘soccer’ for the entirety of this article. I’m sorry if this bothers any Euro snobs.

The NFL is the biggest and most popular (well, prior to a series of unfortunate recent events at least) sports league in America for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons hold a key to how soccer and MLS can grown in popularity and fanhood.

MLS 3.0: How MLS can use one of the NFL’s greatest strengths to grow viewership

I’ve read a bunch of articles on this from various respected sources and blogs. The inspiration from this article came from an old debate I remember from ESPN First Take last year, which I unfortunately can’t link in this article because ESPN doesn’t have their video/podcast archives go back more than a few months. The debate topic for Skip and Stephen A. was ‘Which league is bigger and more popular and why, the NBA or the NFL?’ From this video debate and many articles on the topic, there is one theme that stands out: the schedule.

The NBA has games every day of the week and stretches out an 82 game season over many months. The NFL has a nice steady rhythm of one game a week, almost all of them are on Sundays and there are only 16 of them. There are other reasons argued, but they are more variable or are too subjective. Examples: The Donald Sterling incident was a mess, the Ray Rice incident was a bigger mess, one league has more conspiracies within it, the NFL has more parity, their refs suck more, etc.

The schedule is not subject to change anytime soon and is also not an in-game component, thus removing reservations individuals may have with football being too long, basketball not being as tough physically, and in the context of soccer, issues like a running clock, no time outs, diving, and others that some Americans have with the beautiful game.

In comparison to all the other major sports leagues in America, the NFL schedule is unique. The NHL is similar to the NBA. MLB plays everyday. Almost every other top professional team sport league plays variably throughout the week with no systematic regularity. Thus, the NFL has a leg up on other leagues with its schedule in the same way it does compared to the NBA.

It’s not so much the actual schedule, so much as it is the way the media works the NFL schedule. Going back to the First Take video, Skip Bayless argued that the NFL schedule works perfect for the media. Games are on Sunday. On Monday, they talk about all the Sunday games and preview MNF. On Tuesday and Wednesday, they continue to break down games, talk big picture stories, injuries, etc. On Thursday, they talk about the Thursday night game. On Friday, they do a big preview for Sunday. It’s cyclical and fits nicely for the American consumer working the 9-5 M-F work week. Most of the Sunday games are early afternoon kickoffs, and the big games are always at the same time (Sunday and Monday night). Most fans have game day off and can plan around games, because this is football season.

In the NBA, you can have three games on a Tuesday, nothing on Wednesday, four games on a Thursday, and games all through the weekend. But the big game everyone wants to watch is the night game on Tuesday, but it’s Golden State-OKC, and it’s a 11 pm EST tip off because it’s on the west coast. There’s less regularity, more schedule congestion, the season is longer, and the big games aren’t always at the same time every week. And your team can have three games in four nights, then a break till next weekend.

Plus there’s the sheer number of games. The NFL has 16 games, so if you miss one it’s a big deal. I’m a Lakers fan, I’m not freaking out for a Wednesday game in DC that’s starting before I get out of work because of the time difference. It’s just one of 82 game.

Removing the style of the two sports, the markets the league have teams in, and one’s own personal preference, the NFL lends itself to the American consumer better than the NBA, and the way the media covers and works the schedules the two leagues exacerbates this difference.

Now, how does the NFL schedule and media coverage relate to American soccer?

Soccer has the benefits of the NFL-like schedule.

In almost every league in the world, soccer is played primarily on the weekend. Even in a World Cup year, the vast majority of MLS league matches are played primarily on Saturday and Sunday. Double game weeks happen, but not too often. The season is 34 league games, but still stretches out to about one match per week. Plus, the league has done a better job this year with marketing the off night games, such as making Friday night games a national broadcast game or playing up July’s ‘Monday Night Futbol’ between the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. When a game is on a week night, it’s potentially a CCL or US Open Cup match, which have their own significance. A week night match can be built up as its own big thing if you put the right spin on it, like Monday Night Futbol.

In the current climate, outside of and the team websites, the NFL formula isn’t be followed. The national media obviously does not cover MLS as much as other sports. But even the local news sites and media outlets with a team in the region really only put something out before a game, after a game, or when there is a major event.

That said, ESPNFC has been gradually increasing their MLS time over the years. Once media coverage picks up, which ESPN has said they will be doing, the soccer media could easily follow weekly schedule the NFL media uses as described above. I would hope ESPNFC and Sports Center would follow the model they’ve developed in house for the NFL.

Last year, NBC invested some serious money in EPL coverage. Their web-based print coverage has also increased just as dramatically and does follow a schedule very similar to that of NFL coverage. While they have invested more in MLS in recent years, growth in the non-broadcast areas has so far been limited to scores, the broadcast schedule, and the occasional big headline article. If NBC were to couple their MLS coverage with their EPL coverage and match the schedule style they’ve already implemented, their MLS viewership can piggy back off of the buzz around their EPL coverage. I’m sure Coach Lasso would agree.

As these two sports media giants provide more coverage of MLS and structure it properly, more buzz will be created and other smaller media outlets will follow suit as they see it succeed.

Combining the schedule similarity and media coverage methods of the NFL, MLS can grow in breath and popularity. In doing so, soccer can move closer to becoming a major sport in America.

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