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Scott D. Pierce: MLS is crazy for keeping RSL off national TV

Published May 10, 2011 10:28 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When the current Major League Soccer season began, the consensus was that Real Salt Lake was one of the best teams in the league.

Despite a loss and Javier Morales' horrific injury, that remains true.

RSL is a point behind the L.A. Galaxy in the Western Conference (and in the overall standings), but has played four fewer games. RSL is averaging the most points per game (2.5) in MLS.

Yet only five of 18 MLS teams make fewer appearances on national television during the regular season than RSL. And three of those are Canadian teams that aren't going to be on ESPN/ESPN2 or Fox Soccer Channel much.

Meanwhile, the New York Red Bulls make eight appearances on ESPN2 this season, three more than the last four MLS Cup champions combined. When you look at all 43 regular-season matches on ESPN/ESPN2 and FSC, New York (10), Los Angeles (13) and Seattle (10) combine to take 33 of the 86 possible slots — 38 percent of the total.

Sure, networks are interested in teams in the biggest markets. Conventional wisdom is that will translate into bigger ratings. And New York is the nation's No. 1 TV market; Los Angeles is No. 2.

But Seattle is No. 13. There are eight other teams in bigger markets that are on national TV less than the Sounders — from two to seven times.

Clearly, the MLS is pushing Seattle, where attendance averages about 36,000. That looks great on TV. (Seven of the Sounders' national appearances are home games.)

Real Salt Lake, meanwhile, is making just four total appearances — two on ESPN2 and two on FSC.

The league's TV contract even stuck it to RSL on Saturday. The game against Chivas was a 2 p.m. start for Spanish-language Telefutura — which is all but impossible to get in Utah.

And afternoon games cost RSL at least a couple thousand in attendance, according to the team.

Clearly, RSL is hurt by the size of its TV market — ranked 32nd.

The three U.S. teams in the smallest markets — No. 31 Kansas City, RSL and No. 34 Columbus — make a total of 10 national appearances — 23 fewer than the Galaxy, Red Bulls and Sounders.

But four appearances by RSL is just this side of insane.

That's not just the opinion of a Utah columnist sticking up for the local team. Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wuhl, in addition to calling RSL "the class of the MLS," wrote, "The relative lack of RSL games on national TV this season is worth an entire other story."

RSL isn't just good, it's fun to watch. They were the league's highest-scoring team in 2010; they're No. 2 in goals per game in 2011. As Sports Illustrated put it, they play "an entertaining brand of soccer that's rare in MLS."

And rarely seen outside of local telecasts.

MLS is still fighting for fans. For viewers. For legitimacy.

Which is why it makes no sense to keep one of your biggest assets in the shadows.

If MLS, ESPN and FSC worry that RSL isn't a big TV draw, why not put them on when they play L.A., New York and Seattle? This season, not one of those games is nationally televised.

RSL plays the kind of soccer that can help convert fans. Maybe not the soccer haters, but there are a lot of American soccer lovers who don't take MLS seriously.

When you're fighting for fans, giving RSL just four of a possible 86 national TV slots makes absolutely no sense.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Contact him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter: @ScottDPierce; check out the TV or not TV blog at sltrib.com/blogs/tv.