In the course of conducting the interviews for my MLS Cup final preview, I figured it would be a good idea to also take a season-ending look at the state the state of Major League Soccer's national television coverage in the U.S. and Canada.
That is always a hot topic, and if you need any proof, check my Twitter mentions. Many fans across both countries latch on to even the smallest morsel of ratings and viewership data as a means of casting judgment on whether soccer "has made it" in America.
There was noticeable growth in the regular season, with ESPN increasing its own numbers and Fox Sports 1 faring far better than much of what NBCSN did. But in the playoffs, the league has taken a beating. Despite having every postseason game nationally televised in the U.S. for the first time ever, viewership figures have been about the same as those for the regular season, and in some cases worse.
As ever, MLS faced a difficult choice. If it wanted to get its weekend games on big-time networks, it had to take Sunday time slots that put it up against the NFL. If it wanted to not go up against the NFL, it had to take slots on TV channels with far lower profiles, because all the top channels have college football from noon to midnight.
ESPN, Fox and Univision have always presented their eight-year deal with MLS as a long-term play. But in the short term, there are questions about whether the Sunday strategy is working.
One of the people asking those questions is Adrian Healey, ESPN's lead MLS play-by-play voice. He admitted to me that some of his colleagues are "a little frustrated" with where things stand, and have been for a while.
"We knew we'd be up against juggernauts, from the Masters in April to a lot of tennis and a lot of golf. And then, of course, NFL. Sunday is a very tough slot to win, and we knew that going in," he told me. "The league and the broadcasters are thoroughly aware that this is not ideal, but I think the plan is to stick with it for now and see what happens."
The third way, as many fans have discussed, is to play more midweek games. Everyone I know in the industry believes that would lead to an increase in TV ratings, but at the likely cost of a decrease in attendance.
"I think all of us recognize that we would do much better on a midweek evening," Healey said. "However, the problem is that the league is caught with two very different aims… They'd love Wednesday nights or Thursday nights, [with] much less competition and more attention, but they still don't have enough clubs that can sell tickets for midweek. "
Some of that has to do with club owners who believe that proven ticket sales revenue is more important than potential TV rights revenue. But put that aside for a moment. Do you, as a fan, want to battle rush hour traffic on a Wednesday to go to PPL Park? If not, you're in the same boat as fans in Chicago, Denver, Dallas, New York and Boston.
One of the key selling points of soccer in the U.S. and Canada is the stadium atmosphere, You know what the reaction would be from the wider public upon seeing swaths of empty seats at a nationally-televised playoff game.
"There are probably five or six teams around the league that could successfully do a game on any night of the week," Healey said. "Is it better to get a slight bump in ratings and have 10,000 at Chicago or Colorado, where it doesn't look good?... Unless we are in Seattle or Portland or Kansas City every week, but we can't go there every week, nor would we want to, nor should we."
I think MLS chose the right path, and I know I'm not alone. From a true soccer fan's perspective, the Sunday slates on ESPN and Fox Sports 1 were easy to find and ensured not only that no games overlapped with each other, but also that they didn't overlap with any big games in Europe.
Unfortunately, MLS suffered from the fact that many of the teams that made the conference semifinals - especially Columbus, Dallas and D.C. - simply don't command much attention on a national scale. Even worse, those three don't command much attention on a local scale either.
If Seattle and Los Angeles had both made the conference semifinals (which wouldn't have been that hard if the Galaxy had paid a bit more attention at the end of the regular season), there's no doubt that ratings would have been higher.
We can only wonder what the numbers would be if Orlando had made it to the playoffs, or New York City FC. Or what will happen if Chicago and Philadelphia get themselves out of the trash can.
It's also problematic that the three Canadian teams don't draw as well as some might hope, given the presence of stars like Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley and Montréal's Didier Drogba.
But the Canadian clubs did deliver for TSN and RDS, the Bell Media-owned English and French channels that are MLS' national rights-holders north of the border. This year was the first in which all three Canadian teams made the playoffs, including Toronto FC's long-awaited postseason debut.
Even better from a TV perspective, that game was against the Impact. Putting that rivalry on such a big stage generated lots of buzz in both cities, and delivered the biggest combined TSN-RDS MLS audience of all time.
"To have all three teams in the playoffs at the same time was a massive shot in the arm in terms of the interest in Major League Soccer north of the border," TSN lead play-by-play announcer Luke Wileman told me. "That was the only game in town on that night and it was something that a lot of people paid a lot of attention to."
That high water mark was reached at a crucial time. Bell's current deal with MLS, which started in 2011, expires after the 2016 season. So do, from what I understand, local contracts that the Impact and Whitecaps have with Bell for additional games on the company's channels.
The quality of Bell's presentation has won lots of praise from fans in both the U.S. and Canada. Even on days when TSN and RDS air all three Canadian teams, they have a deep stable of announcing and production talent that delivers a quality presentation from start to finish.
It's widely expected that Bell and MLS will extend their relationship, but there are doubts within the industry about whether Bell will write a big check when the deal is done.
There are many reasons for that. I don't know whether MLS' steadfast refusal to allow Canadians to count as domestic players on American club rosters is one of them (the league uses American labor law as a justification, but many observers believe the case does not hold water).
I do know that the Canadian Soccer Association can't stand the situation. And I've heard that's a factor in the CSA's efforts to launch a Canadian domestic league in 2017 - with Bell as a major commercial sponsor.
If that's where Bell really wants to put its money, there will only be so much MLS can do. But it's clear to Bell, MLS and everyone else that the Whitecaps, Impact and TFC have clear and increasing popularity in their markets. And if all sides are honest, this year was the first ever that showed the true potential of how big those clubs can be.
"I think it was a real shame and a real missed opportunity for Toronto FC that they went out [of the playoffs] with such a whimper, because if they had been able to build as the playoffs went along, that momentum would have kept growing without a doubt," Wileman said. "We've seen in Vancouver that they've managed to put something together in terms of a couple of positive years under Carl Robinson, and the groundswell of support for that team just keeps on growing."
There is a certain New York-ness to how Toronto views its relationship with Montreal and Vancouver. But it's also impossible to escape the fact that when the Raptors and Blue Jays are good - and they sure have been this year - the entire country pays attention.
TFC, on the other hand, has been at the bottom of the barrel for almost its entire existence. If new club president Bill Manning can properly marshal the deep pockets of corporate parent Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it'll be a big deal. And it will, to be blunt, be a bigger deal than anything the new Canadian league can pull off in the short-to-medium term.
No matter what happens with the national MLS deal in Canada, there will still be TFC games on TSN because Bell owns a stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
(Bell's big rival, Rogers, also owns a stake in MLSE. Yes, it's awkward. It also means that TFC games will very likely continue to be split between TSN and Rogers' Sportsnet network.)
It's a near-certainty that the Whitecaps won't be leaving TSN either, because Bell is the team's jersey sponsor and will likely continue to be for a long time to come.
Montreal is a different matter, though. The Impact's current "regional" deal splits games between Bell-owned RDS and rival TVA Sports. It's a five-year contract that started when the team joined MLS in 2012.
TVA's corporate parent Québecor also owns cable TV and wireless phone company Vidéotron, which is one of the Impact's top commercial sponsors. And the network also has French-language rights to the CONCACAF Champions League, thanks to a deal with English-language rights holder Rogers.
Although TVA drew big audiences for the Impact's run to the Champions League final this past spring, its MLS games have drawn smaller audiences than those that RDS has aired.
The Impact's inaugural MLS TV deal was TVA Sports' first major rights acquisition after it launched in September of 2011. What really got the network on the map, though, was partnering with Rogers in 2013 on a 12-year deal to seize the national NHL TV package away from Bell.
The NHL contract began with the 2014-15 season. Not surprisingly, TVA quickly stacked its programming grid with hockey coverage. Meanwhile, Bell's networks are without national hockey broadcasts until 2026. All the company has are regional deals in Montreal (in French only), Ottawa and Winnipeg.
To fill the resulting hole, Bell turned to soccer in a big way. It extended its FIFA contract through 2026 (albeit as part of the controversial closed-door deal FIFA struck with Fox and Telemundo); extended its English Premier League deal; and took over rights to the UEFA Champions League and Canadian national team.
Will an extension with MLS be next? I know a lot of people on TSN's MLS coverage team who hope so. One of them is Patrick Leduc, RDS' lead soccer studio analyst.
"Since they won't have the hockey deal - which is what really brings revenue in Canada - for another 10 years, Bell is in a position where they need to fill the grid," Leduc told me. "You'd have to give Bell an advantage, but I wouldn't take it for granted,"
Here's another reason for the uncertainty: Bell is in a cost-cutting mode right now, as evidenced by its laying off 380 employees last month.
(Among them was a good friend of mine: Perry Solkowski, the sideline reporter on TSN's Whitecaps broadcasts.)
So, what are the ways to convince TSN to put more money on the table, even if it's not a huge increase?
One is to get RDS more Impact games, which TSN would have the ability to simulcast in English. I'm told RDS seriously wants that, and I've heard rumblings that the Impact want that too.
Another is to give TSN digital rights to stream games on its TSN Go platform that aren't televised in Canada. That's an item American fans need to pay attention to. Here's why.
You may recall that as part of the new ESPN/Fox/Univision deal, ESPN acquired out-of-market digital streaming rights for MLS games in the United States. The network intended to put those games on ESPN3, which would have made them free of charge to subscribers, with a supplementary subscription package for everyone else. But there wasn't enough time to get everything set up this year, so ESPN decided to continue the subscription-only MLS Live platform for another season.
I've heard that one of the reasons why the big move didn't happen this year is that there wasn't a way to set up an equivalent platform in Canada. So there basically would have been a situation in which MLS Live existed only for Canadian viewers, while American viewers with ESPN3 access (and it's available in over 99 million homes, at last count) got games free of charge.
Canadian viewers got a taste of what things could be like when TSN used TSN Go to stream some games in this year's playoffs that it wasn't televising. That move rankled some cord-cutters up north, but on the whole it was well-received.
So the potential path forward is this: Get MLS streaming into TSN Go and it will help clear the way to get MLS streaming into ESPN3. That would be a win for MLS, ESPN, TSN and fans on both sides of the border.
Leduc also wants to see the establishment of a weekly MLS wrap-up show on his network, similar to what the English Premier League and Germany's Bundesliga do for their global TV partners. Such a program would help address one of the biggest criticisms of MLS fans in Montreal and across the league: that they follow their team devoutly, but don't follow the league as a whole.
"Most soccer fans don't know who's playing for Columbus [and] they don't know who's playing for the Portland Timbers," Leduc said, referring to the two teams in this year's championship game. "Unless you're an avid fan that really pays attention, you might know one or two names, but that's about it. So you need those sports fans to get more interested and you need to provide more content."
Univision already does such a show, called "Somos MLS." Eurosport, which has MLS' European rights everywhere except the United Kingdom, does a weekend MLS preview show on Friday evenings. Wouldn't it be nice to have similar shows on Fox or ESPN, TSN and RDS?
Leduc, who played for the Montreal Impact in its lower-league years, doesn't just blame MLS headquarters for the lack of such a program. He blames the league's TV partners too, including his own employer.
"MLS does it job, but our network and our rival network in Canada, I don't think we do enough," he said. "That's one of the things I would like to change, and that [show] would be a first step... There are so many stories that you'd want to follow if you're just a Montreal Impact fan. You'll be curious about what's going on with the team that's coming next week. And right now that's not happening."
Let's close with some good news. In addition to delivering that weekly MLS wrapup show, Univision networks have delivered some of the year's best MLS viewership figures. UniMas' exclusive Friday broadcasts often drew audiences that that matched and sometimes bettered those of ESPN and Fox Sports 1.
Among the reasons why: UniMás is an over-the-air network in many markets, including most of America's big cities. Many games were also simulcast on Univision Deportes Network, a pay-TV channel available on many cable and satellite distribution platform. That helped fill in some of the gaps in markets without UniMás affiliates.
One of the most noticeable improvements in the quality of Univision's broadcasts was the network's commitment to having its lead announcers call games live on site, after many years of having them work off studio monitors.
For Ivan Kasanzew, Univision's lead MLS sideline reporter, it was a sign of his company's commitment to putting the American league "at the same level as the Mexican league" in terms of broadcast and production quality.
"I've been calling the league since 2007, I've seen the growth of the league and the growth of the product at Univision," he told me. "Univision Deportes is supporting MLS like never before, and I'm really proud of that decision."
Univision's games were exclusive, a privilege it won by committing to presenting games with both Spanish and English audio feeds. Sadly, not every cable and satellite provider delivered the English-language audio. It was available online, but here's hoping Univision convinces those providers to clean up their acts next year.
(Here's also hoping that the network keeps Keith Costigan as the color analyst. He was sharper than original hire Paul Caligiuri, and brought the best out of play-by-play announcer Ramses Sandoval.)
It also might not be the worst thing if a few more English-speakers decide to enjoy the Spanish-language commentary. I saw that happen over time this year. I also encountered more than a few critics on social media who demanded to be given coverage on an English-language network. It's wrong on many levels to ignore the Latino community's importance to MLS' past, present and future.
If a few English-speakers learned a few words of Spanish this year, that's not such a bad thing. A few Spanish-speakers might have learned a few words of English during Kasanzew's bilingual halftime interviews of coaches. Kasanzew told me he's happy to help make that deal.
"There's nothing like being in the middle of the benches," he said. "If you are in the TV industry as a journalist, the best thing is to be a reporter, because you see everything first hand. For me, it's been a wonderful experience."
From where I sit, the incessant need to latch on to TV ratings annoys me sometimes - perhaps because I feel that fans and journalists use it to justify themselves, not just the sport.
I get it, especially when it comes to people who want to earn a living by making money off soccer's growth in America. And yes, that group very much includes the media. But as a friend in the TV industry once told me, the business of American soccer does not put food on the tables of very many people.
That has been true for many years, and it is as true for me personally as it is for anyone else. As you may have heard, my company just laid off 46 of my colleagues, including 17 of the 29 members of Philly.com's editorial staff. So my duties will be changing, and I will likely have a lot less time to write and report than I have over the last few years.
I hope that down the road, I'll be able to resume the quantity and quality of coverage that you've come to expect here. For the time being, though, I appreciate your understanding as this little slice of the Internet becomes a bit quieter than usual.