Beyond the Boxscore
Chris Canetti remembers the early days (circa 2006) when the Houston Dynamo were lucky to get six to seven games a season on regional TV.
Which makes the Dynamo president appreciate what it means — and what a step forward it is — to know that all 40 games will be televised this season. In HD. With extensive pre and postgame shows.
That's happening thanks to a new three-year deal the Dynamo have reached with Comcast SportsNet Houston that will put 15 games on the channel this season — with another six to be shown on local NBC affiliate KPRC and 19 to be televised nationally (on outlets such as NBC SportsNetwork, ESPN and Fox Sports).
"We're going to be treated like the Rockets and Astros are treated," Canetti told CultureMap in an exclusive interview.
Imagine that . . . a Major League Soccer franchise being covered like the traditional big boys. The Dynamo have always been a model of professionalism on the field. This is the one franchise in Houston that still regularly plays for championships.
"We're going to be treated like the Rockets and Astros are treated."
But breaking the U.S. soccer stigma is not as simple as just winning.
It takes things like packing a new showcase downtown stadium night after night. Things like working out a TV deal that doesn't treat the soccer team like a red-headed stepchild that's pushed into the corner and told to like it.
Canneti calls the Dynamo's new deal "the most complete TV package of any of the MLS teams." It is the programming around the games on CSN that makes the difference, the fact that the new regional cable network is committing to pre and postgame shows, a Dynamo Weekly show and what Canetti says will be a "a six to eight-part documentary-type series."
Those are the same types of shows that the Houston Rockets and Houston Astros, which own CSN, are getting on the network.
Yes, CSN is still only available to around 40 percent of Houston's households due to sometimes crippling carrier disputes. But that does not hurt the Dynamo as much as it does the Rockets and Astros. The Rockets and Astros would have been available to more local viewers under their old deals. But MLS is still at a point where its teams are not guaranteed that type of blanket coverage.
The Dynamo can afford to grow with a network that values it.
It doesn't hurt that CSN president and general manager Matt Hutchings is a soccer guy. You either get soccer or you don't. And Hutchings' soccer bona fides are hard to dispute.
He used to be a ball boy for Houston Hurricane, the North American Soccer League team that played at the Astrodome from 1978 to 1980.
"I grew up playing all sports," Hutchings tells CultureMap. "But soccer was always near and dear to my heart."
CSN would not have come to this deal if it didn't make business sense, if it didn't value and need the programming. Many speculated that Rockets owner Leslie Alexander made that rejected bid to purchase the Dynamo for the CSN programming and additional stadium clout and control. Don't fool yourself into thinking programming's still not a big bottom line.
But with that said, it cannot hurt to have a soccer guy in the head network chair.
It is no secret that the Dynamo's great attendance numbers at BBVA Compass Stadium have never translated into good TV ratings. Or even close to decent ones. Maybe a soccer guy helps come up with creative ways to try and move that needle even a little. At least you know, Hutchings will try.
It doesn't hurt that CSN president and general manager Matt Hutchings is a soccer guy. You either get soccer or you don't.
Hutchings says he first contacted Canetti about working out a deal within days of his arrival in Houston. This has been months in the works. "The Dynamo have been a priority for us from the beginning," Hutchings says.
The Dynamo will not run the network. But they will not be forgotten and dismissed either.
In the end, this agreement is about respect. The Dynamo will be treated like a true member of Houston's big four professional sports teams by a TV partner. CSN's already established it doesn't do Mickey Mouse coverage.
Its pros may be working in something of a shadow themselves — thanks to all those households unable to watch. But they are always prepared. They always bring it. Much like the Dynamo have year after year after year.
"This is something we've wanted since day one," Canetti says of the deal, referring all the way back to those early days when TV had little use for the new soccer guys.
One year after the stadium completely transformed the Dynamo's financial health, this is another important step for soccer in Houston. Culture changes don't happen overnight.
Instead it's painstaking step by painstaking step by painstaking step . . . and then you wake up one morning and realize everything's different. Soccer has not reached that dawn yet. But it's getting easier and easier to imagine it coming.