By Dario Camacho – MIAMI, FL (Mar 12, 2012) US Soccer Players — And so it begins. In what seems like ages since we last saw a ball kicked with points on the line, the seventeenth season of Major League Soccer started over the weekend. The offseason, for us hooked on the sport, felt far too long.
Among the offseason transactions, arguably the biggest move had already taken place. MLS announced in August that 2011 would be the last season for the League on Fox Soccer, opting to sign with NBC for that part of their television package in 2012. The move gives MLS access to network television, with four of the 45 games airing on NBC and the rest on NBC Sports Network, the new name for Versus.
For MLS fans, this added to the anticipation for 2012. Along with the quick returns of David Beckham and Juninho to the Los Angeles lineup as well as Edson Buddle rejoining a stacked Galaxy roster, and the other moves that are expected to make teams better, there was MLS taking a chance with a new broadcast partner.
It's that focus on newness that was apparent throughout Sunday's debut of MLS on NBC Sports Network, Dallas hosting New York. Credit NBC Sports for trying something different. A single commentator in the announce booth isn't new to Seattle fans or anyone who has had the League's out of market video service the last couple of seasons, but signing Arlo White to do national coverage shows that NBC did their homework.
On Sunday, there was a distinct flavor, a sparkle that looked different. When the broadcast started, you could see a definite improvement in presentation. Most notably, a refinement of visual flair when stats or team formations were being displayed. The eye candy was heavy. It was good, it was fresh, it was more than fans of the League normally expect. NBC delivered on production, focusing heavily on how the broadcast looked before the game even kicked off.
That’s huge, because it demonstrates commitment to the product. No one should be under the illusion that any league can afford to sell itself by the game on the field. There's a reason for the graphics packages and pregame shows building up to games in the other North American pro sports leagues. As much as we’d like to believe that the quality on the field is the sole factor of a sport's success on television, the reality is that a network’s presentation must match it step by step.
It's the entertainment part of professional sports, sometimes an intangible that's only notable by its absence. Again, newness helps. NBC doesn't have years of ratings data determining what they do with their soccer broadcasts. This is year one for them, a first step. They also don't have a portfolio of established European leagues. For NBC, American soccer is soccer.
Though part of it was once again that newness, there was a different feel to this game than what I've come to expect from MLS broadcasts. Some are almost intangibles. NBC seemed to mike the crowd at FC Dallas stadium differently. The “oohs” of fans at missed chances were louder. The players were heard. White's commentary, his voice booming as the excitement of the game rose to the occasion. It was all there.
It was exciting. It pulled you in and you felt like part of that crowd, inviting you to stay put. White and Kyle Martino, as odd as that paring felt on paper, actually created an interesting duo. White’s pontificating delivery was lively, even overly jolly. He narrated the action with a gusto that was infectious, enough to believe he would've wanted to be there whether or not he was working. Martino, stationed between the benches, was necessarily more reserved, balancing White’s passion from overpowering the play-by-play.
In the grand scheme of things, some might argue that it’s just window dressing, but television is a medium that viewers expect to be flashy. It's nice when what amounts to outreach includes the existing viewers as well. There was nothing in the broadcast that felt like Soccer 101. NBC Sports hit the right notes to demonstrate that you were watching something belonging to a major league, that it was worth part of your Sunday. It worked on day one.
Let's face it, MLS needs all the help it can get finding an audience. In commissioner Don Garber's conference call with reporters last week, he talked about that, saying: "Growing our television ratings is a priority. It is a function of our marketing efforts. It is a function of ensuring that we have the right schedule, that we have the right promotion platform with our television partners and that we have a product that people care about."
One game in, and NBC has raised the standard for how MLS is covered. It’s a jolt for MLS broadcasts, even if eventually the ratings have to justify network interest. After Sunday's game, the focus shouldn't only be on who watched, but who would like to watch. Once again, it's that ability to stress something new, something different, even for a league in its 17th season.
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