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ESPN prepares for its 20th MLS season - and prepares for a strike

Note: The interview for this story took place Tuesday afternoon, before reports of significant progress in CBA talks. Click here for the latest details as of Tuesday night. 

A few days ago, I was offered the opportunity to chat with Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. Guglielmino oversees ESPN's global soccer programming strategy. He has been an integral part of the relationship between Major League Soccer and the only network that has broadcast its games in every one of its 19 seasons to date.

On March 15, 1994 - even before that year's World Cup took the United States by storm - ESPN signed an agreement to broadcast MLS games when the league launched in 1996. At the time, Guglielmino was a programming planner. His role has only grown since then.

The importance of Guglielmino's work with MLS grew even more last year, when ESPN teamed up with Fox and Univision to strike a multi-platform media rights deal worth $720 million from now through 2022.

And then, not long after I set up the interview, ESPN's relationship with MLS took another dramatic turn.

The network is scheduled to air what is by far the most-anticipated game of the opening weekend of the league's 20th season: Orlando City vs. New York City FC, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.

It will be David Villa vs. Kaká. It will be the first game in MLS for U.S. national team cult hero Mix Diskerud. It will be surrounded by a sellout crowd of 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl. It will be the return of MLS to Florida after a 14-year absence, dating back to the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny after the 2001 season. And it will be a major part of something that has been long demanded of MLS: ensuring that every nationally-televised game is in an exclusive time slot, with no other games taking place concurrently.

So the stage is set for, it's hoped, a big spectacle and a big TV audience.

Except the game might not happen at all.

If MLS and the MLS Players Union can't agree to a collective bargaining agreement in time to save this weekend's games, or even just Sunday's national TV tripleheader, then all the hype and all the ticket sales will be for naught.

We know how MLS headquarters and the 20 team owners feel. We know how the players union feels. We know how the fans feel. But until now, we haven't heard much from the television networks, save for on-air analysts who are mostly former players.

On Tuesday, I got the chance to talk with Guglielmino. He was relatively polite about the CBA uncertainty, but he also sent a clear message about what's at stake.

"Obviously, we are very hopeful that the league and the players can come to an agreement and make sure that we kick things off in style this weekend," he said. "We're hopeful that will be the result, but [a work stoppage] is something we are certainly prepared for, and if that occurs, we'll be prepared to react."

I asked Guglielmino if there will come a point this week when ESPN needs to make a final decision about whether to send its on-air talent and production crew to Orlando.

"We're prepared to go, and we're prepared to go on very short notice," he answered. "As things develop from the league's perspective and the players' perspective, we're on standby to react accordingly. There has not been - I'm not aware of any very specific timelines as to go or no-go, but obviously we're in constant contact with the league, and they've been doing a nice job of keeping us updated with the situation."

It's no secret that the TV networks that broadcast MLS want to see the money they're giving the league be invested in players specifically. That doesn't give the networks leverage in the bargaining room per se. But given the historic size of the check that's been written, one might wonder whether executives at ESPN, Fox at Univision have tapped the two sides on their shoulders and reminded them of what's at stake.

"At the end of the day, I think everybody understands that as a network partner, a media partner, we want them to come to an agreement that works for both parties, and that doesn't interrupt the opening weekend," Guglielmino said. "We certainly think there's some momentum with the media partners - the consistent schedule and all of the promotion that has gone into getting us here. So it would certainly be a shame if they couldn't agree, and the start of the season were delayed. It would certainly be a missed opportunity for all of us that are involved, no question."

What will we see from ESPN once the MLS season does start, whenever that may be? The biggest feature will be one you already know plenty about - appointment viewing on Sunday evenings, with a 5 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2 almost every week.

"I think the big thing is obviously the consistency of scheduling across the board," Guglielmino said. "Obviously with the other broadcasters - Univision on Fridays and Fox right behind us on Sundays - the idea is to really drive appointment viewing around the biggest matches of the weekend. We're excited about that."

You have already heard by now that Sunday's game will feature a 30-minute pregame show, giving ESPN a two-and-a-half hour broadcast window. Most ESPN MLS regular-season broadcasts historically have been two hours. NBC raised the bar with two-and-a-half hour broadcast windows for all of its MLS games, and Fox Sports has announced that it will do the same.

ESPN has far more live programming in its portfolio than NBC or Fox, even for as much air time as the network's many channels must fill. Guglielimino told me that two-and-a-half hour broadcast windows for MLS won't be the norm - but he added that Sunday's setup won't be a one-off either.

"What we're going to try to do is use a combination of two-and-a-half-hour windows and studio lead-ups, also with live event lead-ins and other programming lead-ins, to try to drive an audience into that 5:00 window," he said. "It's going to be something that we look at as we go through. We're going to be very consistent with the 5 p.m. start times with our matchups, and then from a lead in perspective, we're going to change it up and use a combination of programming to drive some audience into that."

Guglielmino also emphasized that ESPN will make a big push in the digital realm, where soccer of all kinds has long had strong traction in America.

"We have a show called boot room that's a digital show, and that's something we drive our audience to before and after our MLS windows," he said. "We get good pickup on that across our digital platform, ESPNFC.com. So we don't look at it as purely a linear situation, in terms of serving MLS and fans and soccer fans more broadly."

One of the factors in MLS' poor TV ratings has been a lack of strong teams in some of America's most important television markets. The Los Angeles Galaxy have been a perennial power, and Seattle is no slouch. But teams in big Eastern cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and (don't we know it) Philadelphia haven't always played like the big-market powers their fans have demanded.

Guglielmino said MLS is fighting a somewhat different battle, because the influence of global soccer isn't necessarily tied to specific American cities. It's spread more broadly, and we've seen that with ratings for the World Cup and the English Premier League in particular.

But he added that "when it comes to major markets in the U.S., there's no question that they're important."

He cited the arrival of New York City FC and the forthcoming second MLS team in Los Angeles as potential factors that could drive growth of MLS ratings.

"If you get two teams in L.A. where there's a great cross-town rivalry and both are strong, and you get two teams in New York that are strong, and they've got rivalries, usually New York-L.A. rivalries in sports are very sexy," he said.

Of course, it helps when big-market teams have big-time players such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry - or as we'll see this year, Steven Gerrard and David Villa.

"A lot of it has to do, from my perspective, with the players who wear those jerseys and those colors," All the storied franchises in any sport, whether it's Real Madrid and Barcelona or whether it's the Galaxy or the [NFL's] Green Bay Packers, the value of those major players that go through those organizations and wear those colors accrues to those team brands. That builds up over time."

You saw Guglielmino mention the Packers there. They, much like the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, are small-market teams that draw plenty of TV viewers. So there's reason to believe that Portland and Kansas City, for example, can attract attention in MLS.

"If you've got the right star power and you've got the right competitive balance, those [small markets] can be really important as well," Guglielmino said. "Twenty years is a relatively short period of time to build up that kind of historical relevance and rivalries, and all those things that sports are built off of."

On the whole, Guglielmino is bullish on MLS' future with ESPN - whether there are games played this weekend or not.

"I think the league has done a great job over the years," he said. "I think it has operated in a very competitive landscape from a U.S. perspective as it relates to sports across the board, and then from a soccer perspective, they operate within the world's true global sport. So I think it has been exciting for us."

ESPN's willingness to extend its partnership with MLS for another eight years, and to write a big check to the league, shows that Guglielmino is not alone.

"It certainly signifies a longstanding belief in the sport, and a belief specifically in MLS," he said of the long-term agreement.

In theory, it all starts this weekend. And if the game does happen, there's every reason to fire up the hype machine.

"We've got a terrific matchup this weekend with the two new clubs," Guglielmino said "We're super excited. For us, we think it's going to be a terrific atmosphere to kick the season off with."

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