Clint Dempsey debuts tonight – good luck seeing it on TV!

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In too many ways, Major League soccer cannot escape from the shadow of its former self – a smaller, less substantial shadow to be sure.

Tonight we have a good example:

Clint Dempsey will be at BMO Field in Toronto, likely to make his Seattle Sounders’ debut as the U.S. international’s new club visits Toronto FC. It’s a watershed moment for the league; in some quarters, this is a bigger signing than David Beckham’s back in 2007. (I would argue the point … but let’s stay on mission here.)

So why isn’t the momentous match on national TV? Why, instead of watching a big moment unfold on a beautiful Toronto summer evening, at a swell MLS ground, are we watching a last-place team at PPL Park against the fourth-place team in the East in the nationally televised match on NBC Sports Network?

Nothing wrong with a contest from picturesque PPL Park outside Philadelphia, but under the circumstances Seattle-Toronto is a better choice. By a long way.

Well, here’s why:  Major League Soccer does not have flexible TV scheduling. The matches for all three league TV partners, ESPN, NBC Sports and Univision, have been set since January.

It hurts MLS most at playoff time. On the final match day, Oct. 27, NBC will show Houston at D.C. United. There is no way United will be in the playoffs, so events from RFK Stadium that night won’t matter for United. Houston is in fifth place currently; any further fall in the standings and the Dynamo won’t be a post-season player, either.

But the lack of flexible schedule also dents MLS on nights like tonight. Why doesn’t the league practice a modern policy of flexible scheduling?

Because TV contracts in MLS aren’t the money-bag behemoths that rule other professional leagues in our country. Gate receipts represent a higher percentage of overall revenue, whereas TV money mostly dwarfs ticket sales in NFL, NBA, etc.  Therefore, MLS clubs get protective about their local fans and those ticket sales.

They worry that juggling kickoff times and match days, frequently necessary for a TV switcheroo, would hack off and potentially hack away at their bread-and-butter fan base.

It’s smaller thinking, a relic of another day in MLS, when clubs probably could not afford to alienate any portion of its local fan base. And Major League Soccer is at a point where “bigger thinking” is the right play.

If you have MLS Live, you can watch Major League Soccer’s big moment tonight. If not … well, check out the highlights later.