Ah MLS. It's not a degenerative disease, but our version of professional soccer...or futbol. Major League Soccer is not a bad product when global competition is factored in, as the league expands every few years and the quality of play improves incrementally each and every year. Stadiums around the nation routinely sell out, and the market has proven that it can support teams in both large and mid-size cities. So what's the problem? Hubris.
It shouldn't be necessary to mention that futbol, despite all of its beauty and splendor and global appeal, isn't FOOTBALL in all of its courseness, domestic popularity and revenue generating power. The NFL and NCAA products are wildly popular, and despite the fact that these days MLS can be found on some of the more obscure cable TV stations, soccer games don't come close to drawing the same number of viewers. I realize that this assertion could easily come from the Center for Studying Really Obvious Concepts, but it bears mentioning since this fact was obviously lost on MLS and ESPN executives this year. What happened?
Despite dire predictions by most analysts and eleven-year olds, the league went ahead and decided to run the MLS Cup (featuring Real Salt Lake versus Sporting KC) at the same time as the NCAA SEC Championship game feauturing Auburn and Missouri. Yep. Can't make this stuff up. Previous lessons involving showing the Cup up against NFL Sunday Night Football, which resulted in horrible ratings over a few years, were apparently lost upon league management and media partner, ESPN. Lessons not learned, apparently. So what gives?
Hubris. Pride. A failure to recognize the reality of being an "also ran" sport amongst the giants of American football. Soccer fans can whine all they want and come up with myriad excuses as to why this is so, but it doesn't change the facts. And marketing decisions should be based on facts, not emotion. The MLS Cup is no time to "stick it to the man" and attempt to prove something. The league needs viewers and so the game should have been aired when the only choices were a Bowling Green football game, a Phoenix Coyote-Winnepeg Jets hockey game, and a handful of random NBA and NCAA hoops contests. Instead, they basically ensured failure, and ESPN should have known better and opted to temper the aspirations of the soccer crowd.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that one couldn't even find a bar in KC that would air the game, but that is probably an exaggeration. But not by much. There was probably a decent viewing audience in Salt Lake, but who cares about Utah? Advertisers demand more! If the MLS wants to be successful in the immediate and long-term television future, it must recognize where it stands in the pecking order of professional and college sports. And experienced networks like ESPN should know better than to enable the behavior of a league that might be getting to big for its britches.