MLS TV Ratings Continue Decline

Maybe I was simply delusional. Perhaps I was drinking the Kool Aid. This past April on EPL I had engaged in a back and forth dialogue with the publisher of that site, Christopher Harris (aka the Gaffer) arguing the English Premier League would always have a niche following in the US and that Major League Soccer was already more popular on TV and would grow remarkably in popularity as a televised sport in the near future, as opposed to the EPL whose fan support in this country was at a ceiling and based primarily on ex-pats.

At the time Fox Soccer Channel was not nielson rated and my theory was based on instinct and the opinions of those who I speak with (most of whom are very pro MLS and US Soccer and not particularly enamored with the Premier League) not any sort of empirical evidence. Well now the evidence is in and could not have been more wrong about the viewership for both leagues.

According to the latest issue of the Sports Business Journal published by Street and Smith’s (now the parent company of the Sporting News incidentally)  MLS TV ratings are about as bad as can be imagined. ESPN2’s Thursday night rating fell this season and the telecasts averaged a 0.2 rating and was watched in an average of 251,000 homes weekly. ESPN 2 has achieved higher average ratings in prime time for such sports as Poker and Bowling in the last year. However, those sports have limited upside potential when compared with Football. But Football in the US fans clearly aren’t enamored with MLS: US National Team telecasts on ESPN and ESPN have averaged a 0.6 rating this year and the Euros averaged a 0.8 on the networks. The lack of viewership on ESPN 2 is a major concern as the network has invested a rights fee in the league for the first time. Despite the signing of David Beckham, MLS averaged less viewers in 2008 on ESPN2 than the league did in 2006 before Beckham was signed and before the new TV deal took affect.  But even more worrying is that MLS games averaged according to BNet a 0.5 rating on ESPN and a 0.3 rating on ESPN 2 for the 1998 season. MLS also averaged a 0.9 rating on ABC that season, when the network broadcast 13 regular season games.  The lone ABC telecast this season between the league’s two most successful clubs historically, garnered a 1.1 rating as a lead in to the Euro 2008 final which achieved a 3.2 rating. So in essence a smaller percentage of TV viewers nationally are watching MLS in 2008 than did in 1998, despite the league having more of a mainstream media presence and having two more franchises. I would note that personally I probably watched more MLS games in 1998 and 1999 than I have in 2007 and 2008 because the league despite the funny clock rules seemed to have better quality to it in those days and some teams like DC United circa 1996-1999 were in my mind as entertaining to watch as any club in the world. MLS currently does not provide that sort of entertainment and looking at these figures I am not alone in beleiving that.

On the lighter side what should be encouraging is that few viewers if any have tuned in for late season and playoff games from Foxborough where reported attendances in the 5,000-7,500 range have looked generous and dishonest.

Fox Soccer Channel has been nielson rated now for about a month. This has been a good thing for the network to prove to potential advertisers that people do tune in for their early morning EPL matches. Matches involving Manchester United or Liverpool have averaged 211,000 viewers on the network. In fact when you consider that FSC is in less than 1/3 the homes that have ESPN2, the Premier League ratings when matched up with the MLS Thursday Primetime ratings are most impressive. Also consider the time of the Premier League matches: often times very early in the morning on the west coast of the U.S. and still at an odd time on the east coast of the US.

MLS ratings on FSC have not been as encouraging for the sport. The matchup between Chivas USA and Houston, the top two teams in the west got a rare 0.0 rating and was viewed in only 24,000 homes. Including the first weekend of the playoffs, FSC is averaging 30,000 viewers for MLS Saturday night matches.

Thirteen years into the life of Major League Soccer and the league seems to be having little success winning core football fans over and worse yet as the sport grows in popularity stateside, MLS seems to be left behind. the hardcore niche audience watching and supporting the league is more passionate than ever, but if this league is to truly succeed we cannot continue to see the regression of TV numbers. It is somewhat unfortunate and unfair but TV ratings are the surest determination many in the media and on Madison Avenue use to ascertain the popularity of a sporting product. With this in mind, MLS has much work to do.

20 thoughts on “MLS TV Ratings Continue Decline”

  1. Simple explanation. MLS standards are not declining as you have claimed previously but the exposure to more soccer from Europe on the tube has made fans here more picky. We know what good soccer looks like now. In 1998 we only saw the world cup every four years and assumed MLS was top shelf club soccer. Now in 2008, we see the BPL, La Liga, Serie A, etc regularly and realize that is what club soocer is meant to be.

    Baring an increase in standard for MLS the ratings will continue to decline going forward until nobody watches at all. Honestly, that is where this is headed. You seem shocked and dismayed by it. Why? I could have predicted this. What is even more laughable is that you thought MLS was bigger than the BPL? Have you ever walked into a mall and counted the number of BPL jerseys kids where? How about MLS? What is the ratio? 10 to 0? 15 to 0? 25 to 0? 50 to 1? Whatever it is, no way it is 1 to 1 or 2 to 2.

  2. I think it would very interesting to see what the ratings on the Spanish speaking networks have looked like over the same time period. It’s very possible that the overall ratings are up, even while the ESPN ratings may be down.

    Also, the ratings for local broadcasts would be nice to see.

  3. ESPN needs to get off of its lazy butt and actually promote the MLS. SportsCenter gives more coverage to the NHL then it does the MLS. That is pathetic.

  4. Obviously I am in the small minority, but I follow MLS much more closely than any other league. I enjoy watching EPL, La Liga, Seria A, etc., however I have very little time to sit in front of the TV and watch an entire game.

    So if I’m going to watch something, it has to be something I care about. I’ve tried, and just cant, care about some team half way around the world that i’ll never get to cheer for, watch, or meet in person.

    I care about MLS because it’s my team in my town. As I understand it, that is how footballing countries BECAME footballing countries. The locals supported their team.

    This is a different time, where it is accepte, even expected, that football fans support some big football corporat… i mean club. I’m not saying that’s wrong. I just dont get it. I just don’t care about the EPL, though I realize that it is head and shoulders above MLS. MLS is my league.

  5. I think I must be part of the small minority as well. I have watched more MLS games this year then any other, and the reason is the availability on TV. During that same time my viewership of the EPL has declined. I don’t pretend the quality in the MLS is better, however, I have a local MLS team (the Fire) and I can feel more closely connected with them.

    From what I see the Fire is followed much closer then in recent years, and the Tribune featuring the Fire a number of times this year, is a revelation. You didn’t see that last year, and yes the Fire did have a soccer writer last year too. The passion for the fire is in the Chicago area, yes attendance of games are not the best, but the atmosphere at the games, especially this past Thursday (17,000+) was electric. Don’t give up on MLS yet Kartik, some of the Fox Soccer trends are depressing, but their late season games have been crap. Even the Houston Chivas game, they weren’t playing for anything.

    I could be drinking the kool aid too, but I think ratings earlier in the season, when there are less distractions, and throughout the remainder of the playoffs will be much better.

  6. yes you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid. MLS TV ratings have been flat all year. They aren’t improving. But there’s tons of Kool-Aid drinkers with their heads in the sand at MLS and they’ll keep telling you about how everything is great because some city wants a team or because some city built a stadium.

  7. I think Kartik’s point about watching DC United in the early days of the league and being entertained more than any MLS side today is very well taken.

    In the early days ESPN showed two games a week and also showed a weekly highlights show called extra time or direct kick or something. They built the brand. But as the salary cap kicked in and the early foreign stars left or retired the league never replaced those players with comparable products.

    You can piss on Stanley all you want but I am in a camp of people who watched MLS closely in the early days but now have so much more soccer to choose from across the globe and anytime I watch MLS now, I do not see the compelling games or the skill level of the midfielders that I did then. It’s an easy choice to watch La Liga or Serie A instead.

  8. The league is in real trouble when you consider the current financial meltdown and the lack of stability of the stadium contstruction market. I think MLS has much bigger problems than anyone leads on and these TV ratings are lower, much lower than I’d expect after 12 years.

  9. I think MLS are not doing enough to advertise the game. Half the time especially on ESPN I forget what game is on or what time cause it is never advertised, they do advertise up and coming games of FFC but non soccer fans are not going to see that. ESPN should be advertising on there other networks ABC during prime time to try and entise new fans.MLS need to get posters up in sports shops even in area’s that do not have a team.
    As for MLS I think it has certainaly got better since I moved here from Scotland 4 years ago, no where near EPL standared but I think there are some quality players out there and the Beckhams and Blanco’s etc can only help the produce more talent coming through the ranks.

  10. DerrickSF,
    Whose been drinking the cool-aid? Is that a general comment on MLS supporters, or a response to something in my post?

  11. I disagree that the financial times now are difficult, but how can we be certain where the league really stands, unless you have inside information? TV ratings while necessary are not the sole metric the league can be judged by.

    I for one wonder why every MLS TV arguement turns into people assuming that those of us defending MLS as a league are somehow trying to say it is the best league in the world. It is many, many, many years away from ever equally any mid level European league, however, that does not mean I will simply not support the league. I would rather be able to go to a live MLS game, then sit at home or in some pub, and watch a European game. And that statement has nothing to do with league quality.

  12. I think Tom sort of hit the point. The problem that MLS has it a) not hyping the games enough and not getting ESPN to do the same and b) there is a scheduling problem.

    I understand that MLS wants to broadcast the games live and that is good. However, the real issue is TV scheduling. If you want to build a good audience, you have to be consistent in your timing and scheduling. Too many times, from week to week, the Thursday game might be at 8:00pm Eastern or 11:00pm Eastern and that doesn’t build an audience. the same thing applies to the Saturday/Sunday games as well.

    My suggestion to the league is take a page from teh NFL and schedule games at the same time, every week. If the Thursday night game on ESPN is NY vs. New england that the game should start at 9:00pm Eastern. If the game is LA v. Chivas, the game should start at 9:00pm Eastern.

    On the weekends, have games start at 12:00pm, 3:00pm, 5:00pm or 8:00pm Eastern. This allows for TV consistence and scheduling.

    To build an audience, make it easy for your audience to find you.

  13. The good news here is that the US soccer fan has so much soccer to watch it’s not just the MLS game on ESPN game or nothing. The surprising ratings for FSC show that there is a bigger market in the US then anyone may have thought. Is the MLS a victim of soccer’s new profile in the US. Possibly so. When ESPN/ABC is showing Euro 2008 it’s very likely many fans will not take the additional time out to watch a Thursday night MLS game. We all know a major international event will outshine our domestic league and most domestic leagues. So, you set your DVR and watch the big match when you get home. Same rules applies to CL matches vs. MLS.

    On the other hand my interest in the EPL and world wide football as a whole has made me more interested in the MLS and my home town team the Chicago Fire.

  14. I refuse to watch MLS untill they get rid of the playoffs and quit playing matches on pitches with line from the previous football game on the field.
    Plus they need to pay the younger players a wage they can live on. The MLS is a 3rd tier league and most teams would be midtable in the fiizy pop league 1, and I dont mean the championship league.

  15. Here could be a clear and simple explanation…

    Who even knows the games are on? I was a regular MLS viewer in the late 90’s. In the early 2000’s I got a demanding professional job and lost touch. As many professionals, I am BUSY, I simply do not have the time to search for the games. The MLS does a terrible job of letting high wage earners know anything about the season, up coming matches or even what is going on.

    Example. I live in Colorado. My son (3) decided that he wants to be Landon Donovan after watching the WC. I had to SEARCH for game dates and times for our MLS team. No billboards are up anywhere. No ads or specials at the locals schools or grocery stores. (there was NFL ads in all these places) I did finally find a great deal for the games, but I should not have to search. The MLS’s marketing repayment is an embarrassment.

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