MLS to Versus is close to a no-brainer

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 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.


37 thoughts on “MLS to Versus is close to a no-brainer

  1. overall I agree, but VS. coverage of Hockey is not at all “outstanding” it is routinely made fun of in NHL circles. But I do agree VS would be a better option for MLS than FSC.

  2. You had me until the last paragraph. Waldo’s presence alone is enough to get me not to watch something and I’m not alone in that feeling. I’ll agree to disagree on his merits (or lack thereof) but what can’t be argued is that he’s controversial enough to have negative impact on viewership.

  3. Good post, I think I agree with you. One small quibble–and this is just personal preference– but while he may not be a great soccer play-by-play guy, Mark Rogandino doesn’t annoy the hell out of me the way Christian Miles does.

  4. I wouldn’t mind, if it means we’d be rid of Christopher Sullivan and the entire FSC production team. They’re just horrific.

  5. Agree with reason #2. I follow IndyCar pretty closely, and Versus’ coverage of IndyCar is generally considered to be far better than ESPN/ABC’s coverage.

  6. you make some interesting and persuasive points. i enjoy the fox soccer report, for obvious reasons, but still find much of the match commentary for mls to be terrible. and the “fone in” show is a joke, waldo notwithstanding. so, yeah, give waldo a chance to shine.
    on a side note: is shep messing still doing commentary for the red bulls? he’s a hoot.

  7. As someone who’s a fan of both soccer and open wheel racing, I’d have to respond to the Indycar argument you make. Though I agree that the Indycar divorce was self-inflicted harm, the series has corrected the mistake by re-merging into a single series and putting renewed gusto into the product. They’ve lost ground to NASCAR, but NASCAR like European or Latin American soccer points to the latent interest in American racing (or soccer) that Indycar (MLS) wants to tap. Versus does a great job of televising Indycar now — much better than ABC/ ESPN for their few races — and does in fact send crews to all but a couple races, who do a better job of covering Indycar than Speed (Fox’s racing channel) handles the more prestigious F1. So I agree with you about what Versus offers but think you’re getting the analysis of Indycar wrong.

    Using the Indycar vs. F1 analogy (interestingly involving another Fox product, announced via satellite), I think Vs. would improve production values, assuming it gets the same increased effort Indycar does.

    But I’m a little concerned when people get too excited about bringing down FSC because it’s one of few dedicated soccer channels out there and while it does not have the World Cup, it’s not as fickle a friend of soccer as ABC/ESPN, who got outbid for key qualifiers and often treat MLS like a second cousin (didn’t pay for rights for a while, have shifted the final back to cable). Even though FSC is messed up in its production its heart is in the right place. Why not add one more channel to the mix instead of limiting the national games and just shifting them around?

  8. I think having MLS games on Vs. would be a great idea. But why does have to be Vs. or FSC, why not have games on Vs. AND FSC and ESPN. Give the people more games to watch. I actually would watch more then the two games a week that ESPN and FSC show combine in a good week. More coverage is what the league needs and the ability of more games to be seen by more people and going to three networks would be the best bet I think.

  9. Which NHL circles? I’m an NHL fan, and I think what Vs. does rivals what ESPN used to do. I’m a Blue Jackets fan, and I’d rather watch them on Vs. then watch the local honks on Fox Sports Ohio, I’ll tell you that right now.

    I think if anyone’s criticizing Vs., it’s not because of the job they do, it’s because of a lack of visibility. And I’ve heard similar complaints about NBC, which I think are far more valid. There have been times in the past where NBC has passed up on playoff hockey to air golf or poker. Versus at least treats hockey as a crown jewel.

  10. As a hockey fan, I get really frustrated with the coverage on VS. It may be fairly professional and polished in production value, but it has some pretty big flaws. In general I hate national broadcasts, but VS really botches a lot of things, bringing in highly one-sided announcers, cutting to commercial without explaining the whistle, and the fact that every effing intermission story is what Alex Ovechkin or Sydney “diverboy” Crosby did today. They do a very poor job with replays, and the camera loses track of the play fairly often. They even used Chicago’s colour commentator for the Stanley Cup final, and he spent the entire series whining about the officiating and openly rooting for the Blackhawks.

    Certainly anything is better than the amateur hour that FSC covers MLS with, but be careful what you wish for. The biggest improvement would be accessibility, as versus is more often on digital cable, not an upper level sports tier.

  11. With two additional teams next year, and if the regular season expands to 34 games, then by my calculation there would be 66 more games in the regular season next year.

    There’s plenty of games to go around.

  12. I agree with this, and I thought I read somewhere that this is what the league was shooting for: ESPN + FSC + VERSUS. As has been said before, there are plenty of games to go around.

    I also disagree with you about Wynalda. While he is a straightshooter and I know that is much admired around these parts, whereas others see “the Beautiful Game”, he only sees “the Cynical Game”. Don’t think he should be a national mouthpiece or have a national platform to express his cynicism.

  13. I agree with a lot of what you said, and I do think that move to VS would serve MLS well, but I disagree with you about Eric Wynalda. The only people who know who he is are “hardcore” US soccer fans. If you are under 25, you almost definitely don’t know who he is; if you have only followed the USMNT for the last two World Cups, you most likely don’t know who he is (other than maybe an announcer on TV). In my opinion, his TV skills are not great. He doesn’t suck, but I would not want him as the main guy.

  14. Why replace FSC? Why not just add on Versus?

    MLS should have games on a soccer-only channel in NA. We need to support each other in building and sustaining a soccer subculture.

    Do you really suggest that Versus would send commentators to each game, rather than studio commentate, if it showed 12 new live soccer games a week from 6 leagues and competitions happening around the world?

  15. I worry, though, that it depreciates the value of the packages to have the airwaves that full of soccer. It probably doesn’t suit the league’s purpose to have three English-language outlets (plus one Spanish) only to see revenues the same as or less than they are today.

  16. I agree.

    I’m hoping FSC will pay for a new deal, and VS will also pay for a new deal meaning more TV revenue for MLS and its club than in the past. And with 18 clubs that leaves 9 games every weekend, and 4 of them televised “nationally” (ESPN, FSC, VS, Telefutura) and 5 still left for the pay-per-view package/regional/local audiences.

    At the end of the day I think MLS should get paid for rights (which I believe they do, atleast from ESPN), in every situation from here on out (if prospective carrier channels won’t pay, then they can’t have it!).

  17. Yeah, but Aaron, do you really want Joe Benanati calling soccer games? Cause he does everything else on Versus and his voice grates my skin.

    All that aside, a move to Versus would be the best thing for MLS right now. If MLS is treated with as much care as the NHL is by Versus, they could do some really great work.

  18. *Disclaimer* This Joe B comment is made by a disgruntled Flyers fan who hates everything the Capitals do*

    And remember this goal is brought to you by a case of tasty cakes

  19. I’m confused. How does FSC have a 13 year head start when it first hit the air-waves in 2005?

    Edit: Nevermind, totally forgot it use to be Fox Sports World. Confusion has dispersed.

  20. I think VS should replace Univision instead of FSC. Univision’s coverage is horrible, no promotion of the game of the week or MLS in general and they broadcast the game on TeleFutura which nobody watches.

  21. Good Blog, and I agree with most of what your saying. someone correct me if I’m wrong but Fox Soccer Report is produced in Canada I believe and (not bashing Canadians or anything) that a truly American produced show would appeal more to Americans. Again not to bash the guys and girls at FSC (I ❤ Terry Leigh) but it does seem rather small budget and that will def. turn off the casual fan.

  22. Actually, I don’t hate the Caps at all. I think the world of Ovechkin. He’s my favorite non-Flyer, and one of only 3 or 4 guys who I would pay money to go watch in person. I hate Sissy Crysby and the Punkguins, and I think we can both agree on that.

    Benanati’s voice and over-the-top, false exuberance makes him sound like he broadcasts to hear his own voice inside his head. His “OK, now’s the time to bring my gravelly voice on because it’s important to the game” shtick wears thin pretty quickly.

  23. ooh. Allow me to pile onto the Joe B sucks as an announcer bandwaggon. There’s a post a while back complaining that Vs cuts away while not explaining the whistle or stop in play. The culprit? Joe B. He’s about catch phrases and chit chat, not play-by-play calling.

    I’ve thought for a while that Vs would be a good home for MLS. In addition to what Aaron’s spelled out, generally speaking Vs is within the standard mix of channels on a cable/sat system, not cast off to one side like FSC is.

    Add to that the fact that a lot of ComcastSportsNets do local coverage of teams and now there’s a network of folks to pull together to do broadcasts.

  24. No, the MLS needs to attract the attention of world soccer fans. It needs to be a viable, quality option. It needs to be embraced by the soccer community, not separated from it. FSC is the perfect spot to do this, especially now that they have HD broadcasts. They do need to upgrade the graphics though.

    Remember HDNet? Nice picture but poor ratings for sure.

  25. But FSC is a niche network. It caters directly to the soccer fans and no one else. Yes, that’s good for purposes of preaching to the choir.

    But as a niche network it’s low on the priority list to get the much coveted HD bandwidth on many cable systems.

    Verses is already in HD on many systems and is a Comcast owned entity, ensuring that it will remain in HD and be in the center of the channel surfing universe.

    FSC does lousy coverage with cheap production values because the next best option is GOL TV which, amazingly, has cheaper production values. Competition with FSC will bring up their quality.

  26. It depends how deep Vs. is willing to go on this. If they’re just going to show it without fanfare (like the UFL), MLS might as well stay. If they do promote it and back it up (like they do with hockey and MMA), It’s only going to help. And staying with ESPN shouldn’t be an option, since we’re getting lost in the shuffle there.

  27. Eric Wynaldo was exposed as a lightweight, ignoramus on Fox Football Fone-In. I couldn’t watch Nick carry Wynaldo once Wynaldo replaced Steven.

    Wynaldo pretty much embarrassed soccer fans with the Jim Rome fiasco.

    I would suggest that Wynaldo go into magic as “The Great Wynaldo” because he will surely make Versus’s soccer ratings ~disappear~..

  28. I agree that the commentators on FSC are brutal. Falsely hyping up incidents and events is always a clue that a broadcaster hasn’t any idea what he’s describing.

    Just look at the Champions League Final coverage as an example of how FOX looks at soccer, and compare to ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup which was top drawer stuff.

  29. I can only speak to my own experience here RE: Versus. I love that they cover the MWC. Living in the Midwest, Versus is like a veritable goldmine to me for keeping tabs on the MWC’s top teams, even if everyone has a laugh about Versus’ production quality for sports that I don’t watch anyway.

    I only found out about Versus b/c my irrational love for college sports drove me to it as Versus is the place to go for the Mountain West Conference, a solid little league that has pumped out quality programs year after year in both hoops and football in its brief existence.

    A few years ago, late one night I felt lucky enough to stumble upon a big UNLV-SDSU game on Versus with big implications for March. Lon Kruger v Steve Fisher.

    Then I was like, “wait, is that Todd Christensen? What is this, American Gladiators?” That’s right, the legendary tight end was the analyst for a hoops broadcast.

    Don’t get me wrong, Christensen actually strikes me as a very thoughtful, well-spoken guy. And that kind of crossover isn’t even unprecedented either, as we’ve seen RE: Brad Daugherty and NASCAR.

    But it is weird.

    As for FSC, the production quality is what it is, hasn’t really changed in years and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

    I do feel compelled however to stick up for some of the on-air personalities, particularly Sullivan and Rogondino who for me have made huge strides.

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