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MLS and the Thursday night television brouhaha

January 20, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Major League Soccer has been known to provide the Sports Business Journal (subscription required) with a nugget or two of information before the rest of us ink-stained wretches, but that might be changing.

Here's what the SBS reported on Monday:

Major League Soccer is not quite ready to carry its own night on TV.

After two years of anemic ratings that started low and finished lower, ESPN executives decided to cancel the league's regular Thursday night telecast on ESPN2 this season. In its place, ESPN2 will carry an MLS game of the week, which will air on four different nights during the season. The weekly matches will occur on Thursdays (10 times), Saturdays (eight times), Wednesdays (six times) and Fridays (three times).

That sounded straightforward enough, but the always hypersensitive MLS took offense at the word "cancel" and on Tuesday issued a release stating, in effect, that the game of the week was merely being televised on various nights as opposed to one, and that it had been a mutual decision between the league and ESPN, not an arbitrary one by the network.

Fair enough. But what troubles MLS far more is the possibility that ESPN will bid for U.S. television rights to English Premier League games. The Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta currently hold those rights, and, according to Soccer America magazine, some English games outdraw MLS games by a margin of five to one.

For MLS to have a national television impact, it has to do something (actually, many things) to attract and keep viewers. On average, only about 250,000 fans watched "MLS Primetime Thursday." The numbers were about the same for MLS games on Spanish-language Telefutura.

Spreading the program over different nights, especially to those Friday and Saturday nights when crowds would be larger than their mid-week counterparts, is one small step in the right direction.

-- Grahame L. Jones

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