Can Netflix help?

The faltering dance between MLS and large television audience continues. 

A little over a month ago, The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal wrote a very sobering article about the (lack of) interest from media outlets in acquiring (or at least paying big bucks to acquire) the rights to broadcast MLS games. In addition to pointing out the fact that NBC and CBS, two big players in American soccer, haven’t shown interest in MLS, he also notes that Fox is often continuing to call games from the studio rather than having commentators attend the games. 

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Stejskal notes that “ESPN, Fox and Univision pay a total of $90 million a year in the current broadcast agreement. That’s a paltry sum in the sports world, and MLS doesn’t even keep the entire total. A portion of the $90 million goes to U.S. Soccer, which contracted with MLS through its subsidiary, Soccer United Marketing, to sell its last round of media rights.” 

To make matters seem more dismal, he notes that any new contract is unlikely to show much of a rise in revenue. And, as we all know, television money drives many leagues. Less than $90 million split between the league office and teams is very, very little money.

It’s not as if anyone can blame the networks. Their job is to make money not to be the white whale who takes losses in order to promote a sport. The networks, in other words, owe us nothing. They owe soccer nothing.

Sure, they may occasionally take a short term loss in order to generate revenue in the future. But the networks are seeing the same thing we all are; new franchises, soccer specific stadia, high season ticket sales, strong attendance. And yet, they also see consistently dismal television ratings.  As Stejskal’s article points out, it’s not as if there is an upward trajectory.

I spent the better part of an afternoon scanning through the comments on Stejskal’s essay and other similar ones, hoping to find that one armchair MLS commissioner who had the secret to success, the secret to getting fans across the nation to watch the sport in the broadest sense. 

There were, of course, those tired suggestions that the game’s rules themselves must be changed in order to gain “American” viewers—the calls for NHL or NASL (or even early MLS) rules that eradicated draws by having shootouts. (MLS did try this; the fans demanded a game more in line with the world game). The calls for promotion and relegation as a way to make owners care about winning (a complete non-starter, given the way the league developed and the high franchise fees). Some asked for a schedule that matches the European football schedule as, supposedly, this would keep people’s interest in MLS up while they were also watching their European counterparts (not quite sure I understand that one).

There were suggestions for solutions that actually work in a circle with the current low tv ratings (i.e., some of these issues would be solved if television ratings were higher, but their existence helps assure that ratings are not high). For instance, several people quite rightly pointed out that MLS games are difficult to access in the sense that you’re never feel quite sure where and when they are on, and when one needs to use their VPN and when to drag out an old antenna. I get it. Googling is easy, but I also get what they are talking about. It’s not like I feel I understand where to watch MLS the way I understand how to watch NFL.

There were those who point out the relative low quality of MLS broadcast teams and camera work (while I don’t always agree, the English language option on Univision can be really awful at times). Again, higher ratings would bring more attention to these details by media outlets. It’s a circle. 

While I don’t think this is necessarily a “solution” to the ratings issue, I am sympathetic with those who argue that MLS should work to highlight CONCACAF Champions League and the US Open Cup. These are interesting competitions pitting the best teams across CONCACAF against each other OR providing interesting David v. Goliath matchups. As it is, though, unless one really looks, these games can go right by without notice. Should MLS do more to promote them? I’m not sure, but I do think it’s worth a shot. 

While some fans think it’s just a waiting game until there are big audiences (in short, young people are watching, which means old people will start to lean in on it, and as the young age, the audience will naturally get larger and larger), others simply offered explanations for why the television audience isn’t showing signs of growth while ticket sales continue to go up. Some point out that soccer seems to only appeal to local interests (i.e., cities with USL teams don’t watch MLS; cities with popular MLS teams seem to only watch their own team in action). Others point out that there is the perception that, while no longer a retirement league, MLS is still a minor league (i.e., why watch MLS when you can watch the Prem, Bundesliga, or Serie A almost as easily). I’ve never bought that argument, given the popular of college basketball, as well as the NBA.

Others argue that while the talent continues to grow in MLS, there are no “stars” and MLS doesn’t seem to want to create media stars. Not sure I think that’s right, but I also have a hard time point out a charismatic larger than life MLS-grown player. MLS had Beckham and Ibrahimovic, but they were brought in to be just that. That said, I actually am sympathetic to a portion of this argument. And while I don’t have a solution, I do have a thought.

Like lots of other people I know, I didn’t watch Formula 1 racing at all until I was hooked into the Netflix series, “Drive to Survive.” That series, though, changed everything for me. I went from not know any drivers, any teams, or how the sport worked, to watching Friday practice, Saturday qualifying and Sunday racing. I check the standings as often as I check the Premier League and MLS tables. I subscribe to news services; I download apps. And you know why? Because I discovered what I should have known all along.

Formula 1 isn’t about racing. Not alone anyway.  It’s life. It’s massive teams; large budgets; power struggles; team conflicts; seasonal competition; intrigue and drama.  Who knew so much was going on? (Well, a lot of people; just not me).

Look, we know people love the fictional world of Ted Lasso. We know people got into limited series focusing on individual teams (e.g., Sunderland). They like these shows because, while about soccer, they are about soccer in the larger sense, the human sense. The players are people; the managers are people; the fans are people; the support staff are people. And with people comes drama—love, anger, laughter, tears.  And we all love drama. 

Yes, Football is life, but it is life in the largest sense of the word. And, maybe, just maybe, if fans can see MLS not as a fledgling league for a fledgling sport, but as an extraordinarily canvas for the human drama, we will find numerous people drawn to the game, first perhaps for the drama but ultimately for the beauty of the game on pitch itself. It’s a win-win.

If MLS wants to take their product to the next level, they need get fans interested beyond just the product on the field. Sure, it’s improving, but with so many other options for consumers, that isn’t enough to push it past the other offerings available. Fans need a deeper level of investment.

Netflix, we are waiting.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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