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On MLS TV Ratings, Contracts, and Production. Why Things aren't All That Bad

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One of the things MLS fans fret about most these days is the state of the TV ratings. Every positive TV ratings is touted as a sign that soccer has finally truly made it in America. Every negative TV rating is shown as a sign that MLS will never take off.

I had the pleasure of having an informal conversation with an ESPN cameraman before a match recently. As we didn't exchange names, nor did I introduce myself as a reporter, I'm running this solely as an informal blog piece, It's not meant to be taken as anything more than a peak behind the curtain.

It's been a big week of soccer at ESPN. They had the Manchester Derby on Monday afternoon, and Liverpool-Fulham on Tuesday afternoon. It caused quite a furor on twitter, prompting some people to comment that they'd rather drink methamphetamine. Despite that negative reaction, the derby performed fairly well for ESPN ratings-wise. In fact it was the largest ever audience for an EPL match on cable.

Which is all well and good, but there's still the fear amongst MLS fans that any day now someone could pull the plus and it'll all go away. Not that it's an unfounded fear. The demise of MLS has been predicted since before the league launched, and we've seen two women's leagues launch and fold with a third one on the way since MLS launched.

What I've come to understand is that ESPN, Fox, and now NBC Sports all view their soccer coverage differently. For ESPN, soccer coverage outside of the World Cup is a loss leader to keep soccer on the American viewer's mind in between the big draw event. ESPN being in the billion dollar company it is, can afford to take a loss on something like soccer broadcasts. Even outside of some etherial notion of keeping soccer in the conversation year round, ESPN needs live content.

Now, ESPN did recently get outbid for the World Cup contract, so does that mean ESPN eases off the soccer petal after 2014? Not likely. Airing US National Team matches is still tied to airing MLS soccer thanks to SUM, and ESPN still needs as much content as it can get it's hands on.

After having two live EPL matches on Monday and Tuesday, now ESPN Deportes is airing the Friday night Chivas-Chicago tilt, and ESPN is airing the Galaxy-Red Bulls match tomorrow. This isn't happening because ESPN is desperately trying to find a way to promote the soccer contract they are burdened with. It's happening because ESPN can afford it.

Which was not the case with Fox Soccer. Fox Sports has regional network responsibilities that ESPN doesn't have, and baseball season means Fox Sports is way overextended. Since Fox Sports isn't making the money ESPN is, it doesn't make as much financial sense to lose money on MLS. And yet they still do it at the regional level, and Fox Soccer did make a completive bid against NBC Sports. Why? Once again, content.

However, there are ways to get the content without it costing big bucks to produce. It's no secret that Fox Soccer's EPL coverage is simply a simulcast of the Sky Sports feed. Sky Sports and Fox are both owned by Rupert Murdoch. It's also no secret that for the regional broadcasts, there's only the home feed, the "away" announcers are broadcasting from the studio.

The way you can tell on a Fox broadcast that the announcers aren't actually there is they won't show the announcers before the match. In the case of the EPL coverage, everything except for match action is narrated by the studio crew, with then the Sky Sports commentary piped in once the match starts.

With ESPN, I've always assumed that if you see Ian Darke with the stadium before the match, that he's on site. Apparently that's not true either. If he does one of his outside the stadium intros before the match, he's on site. Otherwise, he's probably standing in front of a green screen with Steve McManaman. Regardless of one site or not, ESPN is using the same international Sky Sports produced feed that Fox Soccer uses.

None of this should be earth shattering, but if you're not familiar with television production it might help put some context behind those numbers which are supposed to mean either glory or doom for MLS on TV. MLS will continue to be on TV for the same reason children of the 90s all know about the World's Strongest Man competition. It's a live sporting event, and it's relatively cheap to produce.

It's really easy, if you have never paid attention to TV production on the entertainment side of things, to expect a Network to behave like twitter. Alas, not everything on the lineup is there because it's the greatest bit of programming ever produced. There are a myriad of reasons why contracts do or don't get renewed, and as long as it's contractually obligated, soccer will be on TV.

So chill out.