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An Open Letter to ESPN & MLS: I Want My M(LS)TV!

Less than one month from now the 2008 MLS Season will begin. If you need tickets, this is certainly the place to find them (did the ambiguous site name not make that clear?). But if you live too far away to attend most games you, like me, are reliant on television to bring you the action.

Now, if you’ve got MLS Direct Kick, Fox Soccer Channel, Telefutura, or HDNet, you’re covered. Go ahead, enjoy a smorgasbord of soccer entertainment. Just one question. Can I come over?

Because if you are like me, you don’t have those other options. And if you ain’t got the dish or those other pricey cable options though, you’re pretty much screwed. Why?

Well, due to a 2006 agreement between ESPN and MLS, ESPN2 is the sole basic cable broadaster of MLS games until 2014. While I  have nothing against ESPN2 per se, I do take issue with their piss-poor coverage of soccer.

For instance, the MLS-ESPN agreement calls for ESPN2 to air only 26 regular season matchups a year, as well as three playoff games. So, for the common MLS fans out there, like myself, who likely can’t afford MLS Direct Kick or the other pricey sports cable packages, one game a week is all ESPN and MLS will serve to satiate our soccer addiction.

So, ESPN and MLS have set aside only 3 hours a week (and less than 90 hours a year) for the world’s (albeit not America’s) most popular sport? Meanwhile, the same network probably averages about 3-5 hours coverage of poker on its family of networks a day (and even those hours are almost always universally shitty re-runs… yes, Norman Chad, I do know Johnny Chan has the fucking flush and will slow play it because I have seen this fucking hand fifty times).

I wish that 3-5 hours was an exaggerated estimate, but if anything I am afraid it may be on the low side.

And this is the coverage we get from “The Worldwide Leader in Sports”? Well, I would like to think soccer is more of a sport than poker, even if you can’t use your lousy hands (ohhh, poker pun…). 

Furthermore, how much air time do talking heads on ESPN waste sitting around talking about Who’s Next or The Ultimate Highlight. ESPN is the leader in sports, but that’s only because there is no competition.

And if you don’t have basic cable (I doubt you are reading this, but anyways), ABC (who owns ESPN) presents only two matches a year (typically the season opener and the MLS Cup final).

A measly two matches a year (6 hours) of network coverage of America’s top soccer league. And people actually sit around and debate why the league is not attracting more fans?

Here’s an idea for gaining fans: show them your product without making them pay an arm and a leg…

The most disgusting thing is ABC is not even airing a season opener this year. Instead the network is opting to present the June 29, 2008 match between the Galaxy and DC United. On paper and in reality, the match has no significance. It seems to have been selected completely arbitrarily.

Meanwhile, at least televising the season opener would have: (1) informed the head-in-ass crowd that MLS is back, (2) allowed casual fans to catch up with the teams before the season starts, and (3) introduced new fans to the league before half the season was over. But no, let’s just stick with that mid-season yawner.

There must be some big bass fishing tourney or international ice dancing competition on March 29 that ABC just couldn’t pass up.

My point is that the league is hell-bent on persuading all observers that it is “doing everything possible” to expand the league’s brand and increase awareness, but at the same time it is doing nothing to get its product on TV before its potential fans.

It’s the classic “we’re doing our best” line that really means “we are doing best by us”. You want some chump change and a relationship with “The Worldwide Leader in Sports (and Billiards and Poker and even the fucking Spelling Bee)”, you got it MLS. You want more fans, you will need to air more games they can actually watch.

Speaking of which, when the paltry 26 games air this year, what teams do you think they are going to feature? Well, if you are a fan of the Wiz who lives outside Kansas City and you only have basic cable, be sure to watch the ESPN2 game taking place the week before the all-star break. Why? Because that is the only time KC will be on basic cable all… fucking… year….

But guess who has six games televised on ESPN2, another one on ABC, and about two dozen others on various stations? Well, Goldenballs and his Gal(axy) Pals, of course! New England, Chicago, and L.A.’s other team (the Goats) all have six games on ESPN2 as well with NY and D.C. receiving five a piece.

So, let me see if I understand this correctly: the teams from New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago, and D.C. all get featured prominently on TV, while teams that actually have stronger players (like, say, two time defending champ Houston) are awarded with less screen time. Sound fair? Of course not.

I understand that the TV $ is important and that the teams from the bigger cities will bring in bigger audiences, but then why does the league even try to pretend it is spreading the games around? It simply is objectionable that the league would try to argue it was not favoring certain squads while at the same time promoting the large market squads and ignoring the smaller market teams.

Toronto and KC are only on basic cable once. Meanwhile, Beckham faces Blanco twice on TV in one month. I don’t care if the league only wants to promote a few teams (or players) at the expense of the others, I just don’t want to be fed a line of B.S. about how the league is trying to showcase every team.

It’s not true, and here is the proof:

# OF TIMES MLS TEAM WILL PLAY ON NETWORK TV OR BASIC CABLE:

  1. LA Galaxy (7 times)
  2. Chicago
  3. New England
  4. Chivas (tied with 6)
  5. DC
  6. New York (tied with 5)
  7. Dallas
  8. Houston (tied with 4)
  9. Columbus
  10. Salt Lake
  11. San Jose (tied with 3)
  12. Colorado (2)
  13. Toronto
  14. Kansas City (tied with 1)

Soooo, the smaller the city, the less TV time. That is what your numbers reveal MLS.

Kansas City almost made it to the championship game last season too. Good to see the league rewarded them, instead of the Galaxy who failed to qualify for the post-season. Wait a minute…

I will say it one more time to be clear: I WOULDN’T CARE if the league showed only L.A. games but was honest that it was just out to make a buck or two on Becks. However, when a league founded on a single entity model claims that its TV schedule will not cater to a single club or player, but then puts out a schedule like this, they deserve to have their hypocritical asses figuratively handed to them.

I hate all this negativity though. Let’s address some of the smart things (gasp!) MLS and ESPN have done to make soccer more appealing to the general public. 

I believe that ESPN’s smartest move was replacing MLS Soccer Saturday with MLS Primetime Thursday in 2007. The Saturday afternoon games were attracting no audience, and most soccer viewers (i.e., guys, unless Becks is playing… well, straight guys anyways…) don’t have many other options on Thursday nights as the TV lineup is dominated by estrogen-drenched dramas like Gray’s Anatomy.   

More smart moves? Well, for years it has seemed ESPN has been playing musical chairs with the analysts, but there appears to finally be some consistency among the commentators in 2008.

And, for the first time in a long time, I am slowly coming to the ghastly conclusion that I have no real issues with any of the commentators. What the hell am I supposed to bitch about during the telecasts now?

In all fairness, I have never disliked JP Dellacamera. He provides suitable play-by-play and doesn’t intrude on the color guys’ with his opinions. He doesn’t exactly spew pure poetry from the press box, but then again, not many have since Grantland Rice died and the Golden Age of Sports Journalism came to an end.

John Harkes is the new color analyst. He had a fine career and was one of the most significant American soccer talents of the 1990s. Harkes was so loved by his teammates that Steve Sampson famously made Harkes the U.S. “Captain for Life” in 1996 (though the captaincy apparently did not apply to the 1998 World Cup team, as Harkes was controversially passed over for a place on that disappointing squad).

Harkes as captain? Definitely. Harkes as commentator? I just don’t know yet. I didn’t think he did a poor job at the 2006 World Cup, but he was not nearly as entertaining/agitating as Eric Wynalda. I think Harkes will do fine, but he certainly lacks sizzle.

I don’t even know if Tommy Smyth will be part of the team in 2008. I like him. He’s a decent analyst and I think he gives the program some nice international flavor. By saying this, I probably just convinced ESPN to release his contract, revoke his Bushwood country club membership, repossess his company car (presumably the world’s only sedan Chris Berman can fit into) and tar and feather him in the Bristol parking lot.

As for Rob Stone and Julie Foudy… Well, Stone strikes me as sort of a golden-voiced dope (Musberger-lite). Foudy is decent, but used too sparingly. But then again, who cares about the studio analysts. So long as Stone is not required to provide any actual meaningful analysis, he can’t really ruin the program (though PBA fans may disagree with that statement).

Allen Hopkins (the Galaxy commentator, not the billiards expert who is also employed by ESPN) should be able to handle the sideline duties (which consist of just about nothing). Come on ESPN. This was your one chance to bring in an Erin Andrews-esque hot chick and you blew it. You know you wanted to, as well. Pussies.

In all fairness, I am not really biased or a sexist. Hot chicks can read the news as poorly as ugly chicks. Just kidding, again. Shame on me.

Finally, though it was undoubtedly a smart move by ESPN, I will miss Eric Wynalda (but, speaking of hot sideline chicks, not as much as I miss Veronica Paysse). Wynalda often inserted his foot in his mouth, but at least he did so with reckless abandon.

We live in a sports media world that is so PC dominated sometimes you feel like no one is actually even saying what they believe to be true anymore, they are just feeding us the same tired storylines. At least Wynalda called them as he saw them.

Grantland Rice, he was not. Though he lacked the ability to clearly articulate his thoughts, the man had balls.

In my opinion, Foudy should have been considered for the color commentator position. She is damn good and it would have been a real sign of the times to see a woman doing color commentary for the top men’s league. Can you imagine that happening in the NFL? 

ESPN went the safe route instead though. Shame on them. You don’t need literal balls to talk about soccer, but figurative ones help and Foudy’s got quite a nice pair.

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