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Pierce: Playing L.A. is the way for RSL to get on ESPN
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Real Salt Lake may not have gotten the easiest draw in the first round of the Major League Soccer playoffs, but facing Los Angeles means one unusually good thing.

The match will be on ESPN at 7 p.m. MT Sunday.

It will be the first time RSL is on ESPN or ESPN2 and only their fourth national TV appearance this season. It will be the Galaxy's seventh time on ESPN/ESPN2 and 19th national TV appearance.

This annoys RSL fans and management, although the team has arguably the best local TV deal in the 19-team league. (Every game on a broadcast station — KTVX-Channel 4 or KUCW-Channel 30 — and in high definition.)

Does the lack of national exposure bother players?

"Yeah, a little bit," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who isn't obsessing over it. "We don't think about that stuff at this time of the year. We think about playing the Galaxy and moving on."

Lack of TV exposure doesn't affect the team's ability to win a championship. Make it to the playoffs, win your matches and you take home the MLS Cup.

But the way MLS schedules national TV games does hurt RSL because it hurts the entire league. Because — for the umpteenth time — MLS and its national TV partners, ESPN and the NBC Sports Network, are under the impression that the way to get big ratings is to show teams from the largest markets.

That is demonstrably false using MLS' own numbers.

Back on Aug. 30, NBCSN telecast Portland (the No. 27 TV market) at Salt Lake (No. 31 — the smallest MLS TV market) and drew 171,000 viewers. That's about 67 percent higher than the average MLS game on NBCSN this season. The following night, D.C. United (No. 5) at New York Red Bulls (No. 1) drew 67,000 viewers on ESPN.

For those of you doing the math, the game with the small-market teams drew more than 2 1/2 times as many viewers as the game with the large-market teams.

Of course there were other factors involved. But clearly it's not true that ratings are all about market size.

The scary thing is that the audience for MLS national games is so small. And getting smaller. According to the Sporting News, MLS viewership on ESPN had fallen from an average of 311,000 viewers in 2012 to 227,000 through the beginning of September in 2013. The audience on the NBC Sports Network dropped from an average of 125,000 to 102,000. The league's TV deals expire at the end of the 2014 season, and MLS is hoping for much bigger payouts starting in 2015. These numbers certainly won't help.

And once again it certainly doesn't help that the national TV schedule is set in January, some 10 months before the end of the regular season. Which is why instead of watching New York clinch the Supporters' Shield on Sunday afternoon against Chicago — a team fighting to make the playoffs — NBCSN was saddled with Houston at D.C. Yes, the Dynamo needed a win to clinch a berth, but United was eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago.

This is why you need flex scheduling. It's not that RSL and RSL fans should be personally insulted that the Oct. 19 matchup between first-place Portland and second-place Salt Lake wasn't on national TV, it's that MLS, NBCSN and ESPN are passing up opportunities to promote big games and increase the ratings.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce. —

MLS • Real has been on national TV three times this season; Galaxy has been on 18 times.
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