ESPN kicks up efforts to bolster MLS ratingsPublished March 24, 2008
Shortly after watching a taped MLS game with his son, ESPN programming executive Scott Guglielmino took the 7-year-old outside to play soccer. As the pair passed the ball back and forth, Guglielmino asked his son what he thought of the game.
“I don’t like the sky cam,” the boy said. “It makes me dizzy.”
The comment surprised Guglielmino, who realized the sky cam didn’t translate in soccer the same way it did in football. As a result, its use during this MLS season will be limited to set plays.
The change is one of several ESPN will make during its second year as an MLS rights holder. Others include a change in talent, expanded broadcast windows, and simulcast coverage on ESPN Deportes and ESPN360.com.
As vice president of programming and acquisitions overseeing motorsports, NBA and soccer, Guglielmino is behind each of those changes. His familiarity with the world’s game stretches back to his youth when he played soccer in Connecticut for Sunil Gulati, now the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Guglielmino made his mark at ESPN by contributing to the network’s decision to broadcast the 1999 Women’s World Cup, a watershed moment in women’s sports. He hopes he can borrow from that experience and his own background in the sport as he tries to make changes to improve ESPN’s MLS ratings and deepen the network’s foothold in soccer.
Through 25 games on ESPN2 last year, MLS delivered a 0.2 cable rating and 229,000 households. The league’s performance on television is more on par with the WNBA than Major League Baseball. As ESPN enters the second year of an eight-year, $64 million commitment to the league, it will be looking for improved ratings.
“Would we love to have the ratings triple and quadruple tomorrow?” Guglielmino said. “Absolutely, but it’s a very competitive environment and the decisions being made on our part and the league’s are pushing things in the right direction.”
The network is looking to return to basics in its broadcasts this year and will use a new marketing slogan to highlight that change. Last year, it built its campaign around the idea, “You’re a soccer fan; you just don’t know it yet.” This year, it will focus on the international nature of the sport, using the slogan “Football. Futbol. Soccer.”
ESPN will back that slogan up by using talent with more background in soccer. Rather than using baseball announcer Dave O’Brien, it will use JP Dellacamera, a veteran play-by-play soccer commentator. He’ll benefit from an additional 30-minute pre- and postgame show that will try to put the game into broader context by highlighting news around the soccer world.
To broaden the network’s reach, it will simulcast MLS games in Spanish on ESPN Deportes. Guglielmino hopes the effort will pick up additional viewers by offering Hispanics an outlet with Spanish announcing, style and flair.
None of those efforts guarantee 50, 75 or 100 percent ratings increases this year, but Guglielmino remains bullish on MLS and ESPN’s investment in the property.
“From my perspective, the only question in my mind when it comes to growth is how quickly over time MLS and its management group want to spend on players,” Guglielmino said. “You’re in a worldwide market. The question is how quickly the ownership group wants to push that envelope.”
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