By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 22, 2011) US Soccer Players — Is anybody really surprised that a tape-delayed Premier League game Fox showed on Sunday afternoon outdrew MLS Cup on ESPN later that night by a considerable margin?  1.5 to 0.8 on the Nielsen scale, and once again Major League Soccer’s big night turns onto a problem in search of an answer. 

One thing this League doesn’t have the luxury of doing is declaring a low rating a success and indicative of their actual audience.  They’re a 1 in front of that decimal point away from even entertaining that, and on network television even the Premier League’s 1.5 isn’t an overwhelming success.  Surprising, sure – especially in a timeslot that’s built for the National Football League and not the Premiership. 

When we talked about this after MLS announced their network television deal with NBC, the magic number for a nationally televised rating has to be around 1.1 share or 1.5 million viewers.  Compared to an 0.8 cable rating, that means practically doubling the people willing to spend two hours in the company of Major League Soccer.  That’s the downside to taking an over-air network deal, it comes with over-air network expectations. 

How MLS adjusts to this is an open question.  This deal is specifically for two regular season and two playoff games on NBC, not attendance and viewership boosters like an MLS team playing a European giant.  From a ratings perspective, it’s the actual MLS product that will have to perform better than it ever has up to this point. 

Though we’re weeks away from a schedule announcement, those NBC games should be underlined, highlighted, and underlined again.  MLS might not have gone all in with their NBC deal, but they’ve certainly raised the level of expectation past anything we’ve seen.  That’s what happens when the second network deal has years worth of ratings.  ABC signed up with MLS for the very first season and stuck with them as the MLS Cup broadcaster through 2008.  A dozen years, and they knew exactly what to expect.  We can safely assume that NBC expects better from their slate of games, and that means a greater degree of difficulty for all involved in Major League Soccer. 

It’s not going to be easy, and it might not be possible.  We’ve seen other leagues with significantly more developed footprints disappoint at network level, not just relative to expectations but against what that network and its affiliates might otherwise be showing.  Again, it’s a different world from a cable sports network and nothing this League has seen so far should suggest a painless transition. 

With that in mind, there are a few assumptions we can already make.  Seattle hosts a game that ends up on NBC, most likely against Los Angeles.  You get the big crowd without a doubt, and the hope that it’s the continuation of a top of the table Western Conference rivalry.  That requires both teams to look a lot like they did in 2011, staying healthy, and avoiding a date on the international calendar.  

That’s where items like David Beckham sticking around and Seattle finding an adequate replacement for Kasey Keller take on a new importance.  You can imagine the look on faces at the League office should a referee’s card the week before cost them a marquee player for an NBC game.  Or a coach decides that game is the perfect time to tinker with a lineup while giving the media an impromptu lecture on fixture congestion and squad management. 

All of those items impacted what should have been marquee dates on the 2011 calendar.  That calendar itself takes on crucial importance in the first NBC season.  The League needs better than scheduling Salt Lake vs LA in March and during an international release window.  The old missteps this League has taken simply can’t happen.  The game has to be raised. 

With reports that ESPN is shaking up its announcers, a lot of the current conversation is centering around who will call games for these NBC broadcasts.  Of note is the point Eric Wynalda is making courtesy of twitter.  The former ESPN and current Fox Soccer voice is points out that MLS isn’t going to draw on a Sunday night in November up against the NFL’s Football Night in America鈥?shown on NBC.  As things stand, it’s Wynalda’s job – he’s one of the studio hosts for Fox’s Premier League coverage – that has become the story of 2011. 

Given the platform, the EPL is a ratings draw on American television in a way it would never be confined to Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus.  This puts it in the conversation with the Mexican Primera for attracting an American audience, and the Premier League is doing it on English-language television. 

You can argue that MLS deserves credit for opening themselves up to that level of scrutiny by seeing what four of their games can do at network level.  This isn’t an All-Stars and Cup deal.  It comes at a time when other leagues can make the ratings point that they’re the biggest draws in American soccer.  MLS telling a specific and highly promotable story got them back to that 0.8 rating after a disastrous 2010 final.  As understatements go, all of this raises the stakes considerably for Major League Soccer.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.