Thanks to my current apartment move, I’ve been too busy to get some of my thoughts down on paper, but one big one I realized I missed out on was that MLS should absolutely “sell” its FSC contract to Versus.
So last week as I packed and schlepped, Seth Vertelney of Goal.com beat me to many of the key points, but allow me to expand a bit.
As much as Versus is made fun of by many in sports, there are three big reasons it would be such a smart decision to move its TV package there. (Of course, MLS will maintain its contracts with ESPN. No one suggests MLS leave ESPN for anywhere.)
Reason #1: Versus looks puny when you compare it to ESPN, but compared to FSC, Versus is a juggernaut. According to the folks at Nielsen, Versus is available in 74 million U.S. homes compared to about 37 million homes for Fox Soccer Channel. I don’t have the numbers in terms of HD carriage, but at least anecdotally, exponentially more people have access to Versus HD compared to FSC HD. While many who follow the NHL or Indycar say that Versus has shut many fans out (and no doubt it did during the Versus-DirectTV dispute that kept it from satellite viewers for eight months until March) but those observers are comparing the NHL and Indycar’s ratings and promotion to the bubble of popularity each sport had during different parts of the 1990s while televised by ESPN. But both Indycar and the NHL suffered through incompetent management and total upheaval (the CART/IRL split and NHL lockout) that has cost each organization fans/viewers that it will likely never get back.
Finally, Versus (owned by Comcast) is on the verge of becoming the sports flagship of the NBC/Universal/Comcast empire once the deal is approved by the feds. It does MLS no harm by making an ally with a media entity that potentially large or powerful. Right now, Versus is a niche network but unlike FSC, it has the potential to rise above that. FSC never will.
Reason #2: Versus’ presentation of live events is tremendous and leaves FSC in the dust. While some of Versus’ “original programming” like Sports Soup, that show with Dennis Miller (ugh) and Fanarchy is laughably dreadful, you have to separate its scripted stuff from the way it covers live events. Versus’ live coverage of every sport I have ever viewed on it, including the Tour de France, NHL hockey, Indycar racing, and a bit of the MMA stuff has been outstanding. We can argue about things like promotion and carriage for hours, but there can be no argument that Versus will put on a much, much better two-hour soccer broadcast that FSC does and that’s despite FSC having a 13-year head start covering soccer. Fox Soccer Report still looks like the world’s best produced college TV program rather than something any ostensibly “major” league would ever want to be associated with. FSC’s broadcasts of MLS, while improved, do not compare in terms of picture quality, graphics, and commentator quality.
There’s a simple reason for this, Versus is willing to throw lots of money at its live events. FSC decorates its sets with nothing but replica shirts. Versus send a big crew to the Tour de France at large expense and almost never commentates on events via TV monitor as FSC does for almost every single CONCACAF event it covers. It also hires commentators that are considered at the pinnacle of the respective sports they cover. Versus’ lead hockey announcer Mike Emrich has won two Emmys and the awards for media service from both the NHL and Hockey Hall of Fame. Phil Liggett, Versus’ top cycling commentator has ten Olympics and 37Tours de France. Meanwhile, FSC chucks blow-dried mediocrities like Mark Rogandino and Christian Miles at helpless American soccer fans. Versus would give MLS a presentation that compares to that it receives on ESPN and might even push ESPN to improve through innovation and creativity with its broadcasts.
#3 Promotion: This too isn’t even close. FSC promotes MLS to people who are already soccer fans. If they weren’t soccer fans, they wouldn’t watch FSC. They wouldn’t even know what FSC is. But, since they’re watching FSC, they probably don’t need MLS promoted. If an FSC viewer decides not to watch MLS, it’s not because he doesn’t know the league or its matches exist. Versus would be able (and if its promotion of NHL, TdF, and Indycar is any indication) and likely to promote MLS massively on its own programming. Plus, if the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger happens, who’s to say MLS won’t be promoted on other mainstream sports fan programming such as the NBA on TNT, Notre Dame football, PGA Golf, or even during the Olympics. None of this is remotely possible on FSC, a network that is only viewed by current soccer fans.
FSC frankly hasn’t done enough to improve the quality of its MLS broadcasts or its other US-soccer related programming to deserve the league’s loyalty in this situation. Too much of what I watch on FSC still looks “bush,” even when it comes to the matches that are produced elsewhere. I believe Versus would do better by MLS.
Finally, I want to give one final piece of advice to Versus if they do in fact get MLS TV rights – go and make Eric Wynalda a star. I don’t care if he occasionally makes folks in MLS wince. He’s everything you’d want in a TV studio personality. Wynalda should be the TV face of MLS on Versus. He should be divisive, honest, controversial, and allowed to opine on whatever he wants (except wildfires and maybe God). Waldo has a name people know, a face that doesn’t scare children (unlike Keith Jones for example), a penchant for speaking his mind, and serious credibility as a talent within the sport.