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Playoff and TV Uncertainty Overshadow MLS Schedule Announcement

Feb 9, 2011 – 12:38 PM
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Brian Straus

Brian Straus %BloggerTitle%

mls schedule major league soccer scheduleThere will be an MLS schedule on Thursday, finally. But don't expect all the confusion to be cleared up, and don't expect the pressure on the league to decrease.

The list of dates and opponents MLS unveils will leave a host of unanswered questions about the upcoming season, as well as the more distant future. And of course, it will be subject to change.

The regular season begins in five weeks (the Los Angeles Galaxy will visit the Seattle Sounders on March 15, and the rest of the clubs will kick off four days later), and the fact that clubs and fans still don't have a full fixture list to work with has been a source of frustration and embarrassment.

That discontent reached the league's Fifth Avenue headquarters.

"We recognize that the timing of (the schedule's) release has caused some inconvenience and we appreciate our fans' continued patience," MLS said in a statement released last week.

Certainly the delay puts a burden on the clubs' ticketing and marketing employees, and it can be a strain on those hoping to plan to travel for a game or two. But the indignation that's been piling up on message boards, blogs and Twitter is missing the bigger picture.

First, MLS faces logistical challenges unique in American sports. The four U.S. representatives in the following season's CONCACAF Champions League aren't finalized until after the MLS Cup semifinals, which means the league can't even begin to work on the schedule until December.

Stadium issues also play a role. There are shared facilities, and two (Kansas City and Vancouver) scheduled to open midway through the season.

This year in particular, TV is an issue. The league's contract with Fox Soccer Channel has expired, and negotiations on a renewal have taken longer than anticipated. Networks (ESPN and Univision are the others) have significant input on the schedule.

In 2010, MLS unveiled its fixture list on Feb. 3, just a week ahead of this year. The English Premier League releases its schedule only two months ahead of time. Many other leagues, including La Liga, don't announce the exact date and kickoff time for a game until a week or two before, such is the influence of TV.

This year's MLS delay is unfortunate, but not unique or unprecedented.
What should concern everyone who cares about the growth of American soccer is what will not be announced on Thursday -- a new TV deal and a 2011 playoff format.

The lack of the former means, in the short run, that the schedule unveiled this week will be a rough draft. Once FSC or a competitor signs on to broadcast MLS on the weekend, games will move to suit the network's plans.

In the long run, it signifies the league's continuing issues with both relevance and TV -- American soccer's last frontier. While ESPN and its SportsCenter frat boys continue to give MLS short shrift, the league reportedly is demanding a $20 million annual rights fee from FSC, way up from the $3 million in the previous deal. No wonder Fox is holding out.

The popularity of the World Cup proved there is an appetite in the U.S. for meaningful soccer. But networks are going to be reluctant to spend money and promotional resources on MLS as long as it struggles to deliver a compelling product that drives ratings.

That's where the playoff format (or lack thereof) comes in. The crushing anticlimax that was November's MLS Cup Final (the ratings were abysmal, down 44%, and the BMO Field stands half empty when Pablo Mastroeni lifted the trophy) was all the proof that should be needed that the league doesn't determine a champion in a manner that captivates fans.

No one ever questions whether the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL titlist is deserving, and the conclusion of their campaigns is highly anticipated. Yet year after year, MLS asks fans and sponsors to invest in a lengthy regular season, only to see the league crown a champion with an abbreviated rock-paper-scissors competition that sucks all the meaning out of the preceding seven months of play.

That hasn't inspired people to tune in.

When MLS does settle on a postseason structure, we have a hunch that the likes of Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry won't play a role in the announcement. Yet that very recognizable pair joined commissioner Don Garber on a conference call last week to trumpet the decision to play July's all-star game at Red Bull Arena.

When the league's most recognizable stars are invited to help promote an exhibition game, yet we're more than a month past the promised unveiling of a new competition and playoff format, there is a sense of disconnect.

When MLS adds four games to the regular season and two clubs to the postseason -- thereby diluting the importance of an individual match and compressing the playoff window even further -- then acknowledges the need to make its product more meaningful and relevant, there is a sense of disconnect.

The MLS all-star game is a fun, one-night diversion (and way more compelling than its tired NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB counterparts). But the evidence that MLS and its players continue to rely too heavily on a tenuous association with the sport's biggest foreign brands remains. Donovan and Henry's participation furthers the concern.

That inclination has failed to inspire fans to care deeply about the league as a whole, or the MLS Cup playoffs, and it won't entice a TV network to invest money and time. Networks need a weekly audience. They need a grand finale, not a summer exhibition win over Chelsea or Manchester City. That hasn't worked.

FanHouse asked Garber to address the issue. Here's his entire response:
"It's something that we think about a lot. Clearly the priority is the league competition, but there are so many things that are going on with the sport in this country, that as a young league make it complicated and more difficult.

"You've got the (UEFA) Champions League, (which) is so important in European leagues, but our Champions League has not yet reached that level of importance. We want to compete well and get to the World Club Championship. Obviously there's (World Cup) qualifying that'll take place during this year and players that are going to be called away from their teams. The international clubs are still coming to our shores and very interested in expanding their brands in the United States, and we see that as an opportunity to pit our teams against those clubs.

"But at the end of the day our league competition needs to be the priority. It's a function of working with our clubs to make their teams more relevant ... ensuring that the regular season matters. Like with all ... sports in this country, having a compelling playoff format that builds interest to a championship game and figuring out ways as part of that we can ensure the regular season has more meaning that it's had in the past but also that the playoffs and Cup have a lot more meaning.

"These are things we think about every day. At the same time we've got to capture the interest of the international soccer fan, many of whom are not yet fully devoted MLS fans. And these kinds of friendlies and the all-star game are mechanisms, if you will, or tactics to be able to do that."

We're probably not going to get a TV deal or a playoff format on Thursday. The delay in the former has contributed to the latter by pushing back the schedule announcement. Some of that is not MLS's fault.

But it is related, and the conflicting priorities need to be resolved. The league would be a more compelling TV property if there was a sense that its games really mattered -- that the identity of its champion mattered. That's why what won't be announced Thursday is more important than what will be. Garber and Co. have some work to do if they're going to inject that meaning by the time the ESPN deal expires in four years.
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