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It Seems To Me. . .

MLS finds competition from the abundance of foreign soccer on American television.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, November 8, 2013) -- As I write this, I am watching Barcelona host AC Milan in a European Champions League group-stage match. Two of the best teams in the world available to me not on pay-per-view, but essentially free -- or at least as part of my sports package with my cable provider.

This past week, I could have watched multiple matches from some of the best leagues in the world -- the Premier League in England, Germany's Bundesliga. La Liga in Spain, Italy's Serie A, France's Ligue 1, Eredivisie in the Netherlands, the Premier league in Scotland, as well as top divisions in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, to say nothing of matches in both the Champions League and Europa League in Europe.

Some of the world's best soccer, week after week and all I have to do is work the remote. I can remember the day when the only way you could see matches like these was to go to one of the "soccer" bars in your city -- if you were lucky enough to have one in your city -- pay an admission fee and strain to see one of the TVs fastened to the wall.

For soccer fans, this is about the best of times, but this got me to wondering what impact all this top-flight soccer on television is having on the top American domestic league, Major League Soccer.

For years, MLS commissioner Don Garber was a leading cheerleader for more soccer on United State television. His theory was that televised soccer would create nouveau soccer fans who would like to see soccer is person and would come out to MLS matches and would become paying customers.

But even a nouveau fan can immediately see the difference in the level of play in MLS when compared to what they are seeing on television. Yes, the quality of play in MLS is getting gradually better with more designated players, more European and South American players coming here while they have at least a few good years left in them, some good young Americans opting to stay home rather than head abroad at the first opportunity.

This is all to the good, but MLS still has years to go and million to spend before it can really be where Garber wants it -- as "one of the best leagues in the world" -- a goal he set for MLS to reach by 2023.

So are these new fans turned on by MLS, or turned off, when they compare their in-stadium experience with what they see less expensively from their living-room couches.

Then, too, MLS has another very major problem -- its own televised games are getting lost in this blizzard of other matches on television. MLS's current television contract with NBC runs out in 2014. It's ratings have been poor on a national basis, not only compared to other U.S. sports like hockey and basketball to say nothing of the big two -- the National Football League and Major League Baseball -- but also compared to the European league games. NBC paid a reported $250 million to secure the English Premier League rights. MLS can only dream of receiving that kind of money for its matches.

So it appears that Garber has changed his thinking about foreign soccer on U.S. television. He told the Associated Press sports editors:

"There's more soccer on [U.S.] television than any other sport by far. You've got European soccer. You've got Mexican soccer. You've got Major League Soccer. There's way too much soccer on television. I think all of us got to figure out a way to narrow that window so you can get a situation like the NFL has, a couple of days a week, short schedule, something that's very compelling and very targeted."

It will be interesting to see what kind of TV deal MLS gets for the future. Garber is hoping that the addition of New York FC will give the league a ratings boost. That may be wishful thinking. What it might take is for MLS to rise to the quality of what is being shown all over the television dial and that will take time and will take millions of dollars.

As they say in TV land - stay tuned.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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