MLS on ESPN: A Love/Hate Relationship

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MLS on ESPN: A Love/Hate Relationship
(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images).

MLS probably wouldn't exist today if not for the far-reaching influence of ESPN. Even the most bitter fan can't deny the positive influence that the Worldwide Leader has had on the Beautiful Game here in the States.

Without ESPN, established American stars like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard might be languishing in obscurity on a bench somewhere in Europe or playing big fish in the little pond that is the USL.

A young guy like Jozy Altidore might not be playing soccer at all. Without a domestic league to hone his considerable skill as a youngster, he might have turned his athletic ability to another sport.

And yet, I can't help but feel like things could be better.

Don't get me wrong, I love that ESPN has given so much money and exposure to the league. The TV deal that MLS has in place with ESPN has played no small part in making most of the league's franchises profitable.

MLS gets $8 million per year from the TV deal, a serious chunk of change for a league still in its infancy.

Primetime television broadcasts have also given the league a chance to sell itself to ESPN's considerable viewership. TV ratings were disappointingly low for the 2008 Thursday Game of the Week broadcasts, with an average of about 253,000 viewers each week.

But for 2009, ESPN has gone with a flexible broadcast schedule for the MLS Game of the Week, with games being broadcast on four different days during the course of the season.

ESPN executives expect that this flexibility in the schedulewill allow the network to air more matches including the league's marquee teams. The schedule change will also allow ESPN to give MLS matches better lead-in programming.

The players themselves have also found that ESPN can give them some decent exposure. For any fan of football, not just MLS, Jimmy Conrad's semi-regular columnon ESPN Soccernet is a must-read. His submissions expose Rio Ferdinand's cheap rip-off of 'Punk'd' for what it is...er, a cheap rip-off of 'Punk'd'.

Television revenue, air time, web space...any fan would consider these good things, and I love ESPN for it. But, we still have a long way to go.

The commentating for most matches is downright terrible. We can't expect perfection from the network that, during the 2006 World Cup, claimed that the Netherlands played "a modified 4-4-2, with three guys up front," but we should be getting better than Alexi Lalas and a sideline reporter who doesn't come from a footballing background.

Hey Lalas, suiting up briefly for Padova, then running the LA Galaxy in the ground doesn't qualify you to wax philosophical about the state of the league.

For the primetime broadcasts, we should be getting no worse than JP Dellacamera and Eric Wynalda.

Dellacamera is a very good play-by-play guy with 30 years of experience, and Wynalda always has something entertaining or insightful to add to a broadcast. It's rarely worth listening to the commentary if those two aren't working.

It's also kind of ridiculous that ESPN can only find enough time in their schedule to broadcast one match per week. I've seen their weekend programming, and it seems like they could easily find something to bump.

I know the primetime broadcasts have had poor ratings, but I've got to imagine that there are more fans of professional soccer in the US than there are fans of professional bowling.

So bump the Sunday afternoon PBA broadcast to Classic or the Deuce, and give us another MLS match. The league almost always has a Sunday afternoon match already on the schedule, it's just a matter of giving it some more exposure.

While the Champions League is in full swing, ESPN somehow finds time to bring us two matches per week on its family of networks. Four, if you count the tape-delayed broadcasts on ESPN Classic.

I find it hard to believe that ESPN couldn't work in one more MLS broadcast. We could even compromise and go back to one match per week at the end of the season, when the league is competing with college football for attention.

Unfortunately, those gripes pale in comparison to the third and final complaint. I'm talking of course about the bane of my existence, in-game Sportscenter updates.

At least once per match, ESPN finds it necessary to relegate the MLS match to a tiny square off to the side of the screen while Sportscenter butts in to update us on a completely unrelated sporting event. I'm sorry, but that's what halftime and the Bottom Line are for.

One of the best things about watching a soccer match on television in the lack of commercial interruption. While ESPN isn't interrupting for a commercial, that seems like it's only a small step from these in-game updates.

While I dearly appreciate all that ESPN has done for MLS, I don't think any sane football fan would complain if they stepped up their broadcasting game even a little bit.

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