When the Major League Soccer season began 2½ months ago, it would have surprised many fans that Real Salt Lake would be in second place in the Western Conference in mid-May. It would have stunned just about everyone that Montreal would win its first four games.
Soccer is unpredictable. And nowhere is it less predictable than MLS.
That fact hasn’t gotten through to the league and its national television partners, however. They make decisions about what games fans will want to watch as much as 10 months before they’re played.
That sounds insane, because it is. And it’s not an exaggeration.
MLS, ESPN and the NBC Sports Network released their regular-season TV schedule on Jan. 9. The last regular-season game on that schedule will be played Oct. 27.
Even if we assume the final decisions on that schedule were made the day it was released, that means those decisions were made 291 days before the final regular-season telecast. And there is no one on Earth who can tell you that a soccer game is going to be worth watching 41½ weeks before it’s played.
The NFL schedule is half as long as the MLS schedule, and the NFL is smart enough to allow flex scheduling for the last seven weeks of “Sunday Night Football” to ensure it’s not getting the equivalent of a Chivas-D.C. United matchup.
It’s particularly difficult to understand why MLS doesn’t have flex scheduling because, logistically, it wouldn’t be overly difficult. Each team is required to provide an HD telecast of its home games; NBCSN or ESPN could fly out a couple of sportscasters, add its own graphics and call it good.
Remember: NBCSN picked up a couple of Seattle’s Sounders-RSL telecasts, complete with Seattle’s announcers, last season.
Maybe the quality wouldn’t be network, but better to air a good game than a bad one. And RSL’s telecasts are often better than NBCSN’s.
Maybe some teams would run into trouble booking HD facilities if game times changed, but not all of them would on the same day.
(Chivas USA doesn’t have a local TV deal and writes the visiting team a check to cover broadcast costs, but nobody is going to want Chivas on national TV anytime soon.) Clearly, MLS has to use TV to build interest. It’s not about money. MLS’ annual revenue from American broadcasters is $27 million.
That’s 13.5 percent of the $200 million the NHL currently brings in; 2.9 percent of the $937 million the NBA is getting; 1.7 percent of the $1.55 billion MLB will average beginning in 2014; and .09 percent of the estimated $3 billion a year the NFL will get beginning in 2014.
Billions of dollars would be nice. With that kind of money, MLS could sign international stars before they’re winding down their careers.
But to get big TV deals, you’ve got to average more than a couple hundred thousand viewers for NBCSN games. And to do that, it would help to have some scheduling flexibility.
This is not a plea for more Real Salt Lake games on national television. Although, clearly, RSL’s lack of national games is rather ridiculous.
If the local team is playing good soccer and fighting for something important, it deserves to be on national TV later in the season. If RSL turns out to be a cellar dweller, it does not.
The same goes for every other team.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.