LAFC? MIA. And, No, I Don’t Mean The City

There’s actually a significant post-season football game taking place in Los Angeles this fall, despite the fact that at this moment the Rams and Chargers are both sub-.500 teams, likely not even to get a home playoff game even if they somehow make the last third of their season count, and, sorry, for either of the 7-5 PAC 12 college football squads that are bidding farewell to the now-deceased conference, the Gronk Bowl barely counts and strongly suspect will feature teams resembling a practice squad should one of them qualify.

Ahh…but we didn’t specify AMERICAN football, did we?

Expanding that to what we Yanks call soccer, there actually IS a pretty big event happening tonight, as THE ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Greg Beacham reported:

The longest, busiest, most grueling season in Major League Soccer history is almost over for Los Angeles FC.  And there’s still a chance to end it with a trophy.  LAFC hosts the Houston Dynamo on Saturday in the Western Conference final, which will be its 52nd match of 2023 across all competitions. No MLS team has ever played more matches in a calendar year than coach Steve Cherundolo’s LAFC squad, which earned that dubious achievement by winning the Supporters’ Shield and its first MLS Cup title last year and then having moderate success in the various in-season tournaments for which it qualified this year.

But if you’re to seeking to watch such a monumental event on linear TV, just like at least a portion even the semifinal rounds of every other major professional sports leagues are still being shown, forget it.

This is the first year of MLS’ exclusive deal with Apple TV+, one that has benefitted the league and its teams on a global scale.  And yes, it includes the playoff rounds, the largest size (18 of the league’s 29 teams) and length (what began in late October will conclude next Saturday, December 9th, thanks to an international freindly bye week taken just before last weekend’s start of the knockout round).

At least, if we’re to believe the propganda that SP’s Steve McCaskill reported last month, the pivot to a gloal, streaming service has born some fruit:

Major League Soccer (MLSsays it is now recording audiences of more than one million viewers for its biggest matches during the first season of its global broadcast deal with Apple TV, boosted by the arrival of Lionel Messi at Inter Miami.

“We’ve had more than a million viewers to watch the biggest games this season; no one expected that,” said Apple senior vice president of services Eddy Cue. “I lived in Miami 40 years ago. And it’s always been, ‘Soccer is just around the corner’. It’s not around the corner now – it’s here, it’s now. And everyone in the world now knows about MLS, everyone knows about Inter Miami, thanks to Messi and the work that the league is doing.”

But Messi, who joined InterMiami in mid-season, didn’t play in every match and joined a team that was dead last in their division’s table when he arrived, too far back for even he to lead them to even a first-round appearance.  And even McCaskill is couching the likelihood of that audience level being even remotely close to that number tonight:

While it is unlikely that many Messi-less matches have achieved the one million milestone, the average viewership for 34 regular season matches on ABC and ESPN last season was 343,000. The lack of data from Apple and MLS makes deeper analysis a challenge.

That was then, when the matches aired on networks and platforms that even in decline were available in more than 70 million households, which translates to roughly 140-150 million potential viewers.  By even the most aggressive U.S. estimates, Apple TV+ is currently available to just over 42 million in the U.S.  And that’s not factoring in those that subscribe to MLS Season Pass, which is a subset of that.

And sorry, Eddy, I highly doubt few people in Miami are reading or caring about the storyline unfolding tonight, such as the one that the ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER’s Josh Gross reported:

Houston Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen wishes there were similarities between the Los Angeles Football Club team his players beat twice in a five-day stretch in June and the test they face Saturday night in the Western Conference final at BMO Stadium.

“L.A. in the playoffs is different,” Olsen said. “They just turn it up. That’s what they’ve been able to do for the last few seasons. They’re a different animal, at least this year in the regular season from our experience of seeing them.”

And I even doubt they’re as excited about who is arguably a more impactful player in this season’s MLS than was Messi that the Left Angeles TIMES’ Dylan Hernandez reported this morning could be at a career crossroads:

He was the first player in LAFC history, and has been the best.  If the franchise ever erects statues in Exposition Park, the first will be made in his image. Carlos Vela is LAFC.  Saturday night, when LAFC hosts the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference finals, the 34-year-old Vela could be playing his final home game at BMO Stadium. This isn’t because Vela wants to retire. This isn’t because Vela wants to move to another team. This is because of Major League Soccer’s outdated salary structure.  Sentimentality is often a casualty in leagues with salary caps, but this is especially the case in MLS, in which roster-compliance rules allow for minimal flexibility on how teams can spend money. 

Every MLS team can have as many as three designated players, each of whom can be paid as much as the club wants but counts for only $651,250 against its $5.21-million salary cap.  The most any other player can earn is less than $1.7 million. “My part is there,” Vela said. “But if the other part doesn’t work or doesn’t work in the way that I want, I won’t be here.”

One can surmise that’s not an issue with Messi, and one might also suspect that the influx of cache that a full season of Messi that looms ahead could, at some point, have motivated the MLS to reconsider this outdated policy  But so far, crickets.

So maybe the league and the InterMiami faithful such as Cue aren’t sweating it.  But in Los Angeles, where LAFC is seeking to compete more completely with the Galaxy–who indeed are the last MLS team to accomplish the back-to-back Cup wins they are seeking–this is a big deal, and tonight’s a pretty damn consequential event in the timeline.

Thankfully, what’s left of local press isn’t completely ignoring it.  But TV?  Again, crickets.

An international friendly between the USWNT and China will be available on TNT this afternoon (as well as streamed on MAX).  USA Network is airing back-to-back Premier League matches this morning.  An encore of last night’s women’s college Final Four match between Florida State and Clemson will air this afternoon on ESPNU.   It is entirely possible that due to ubiquitousness alone any of those events might draw more viewers in Los Angeles than tonight’s LAFC-Houston match.

Even the men’s NCAA quarterfinals , airing live on ESPN Plus this afternoon, could reach more viewers, although Statista estimates put ESPN+’s potential below Apple TV+’s.  But, again, that’s the entire ATV+ footprint.  Not every TED LASSO fan can afford or is interested in MLS Season Pass.

That’s not the best recipe to grow the Los Angeles market, or a connection to a winning team.  At a most opportunistic time at that.  I’d take this team’s and this game’s chances to at least be competitive with a Rockets-Lakers game without the overlay of the IST.

But we’ll never know.  And we’ll apparently have to look really deep into local sportscasts to find out what happened, as they do tend to devote more time to what has a higher Q score.

Well, consider this doing my VERY small part to help our community, and to get on a winner’s bandwagon. You’ll at least have me cheering if you win tonight and yes, I’ll be watching.  I’m really hoping I’m not that unique.




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