When Fox Soccer Channel became Nielsen rated last October the hope at least on my end was that it provides evidence that more people were interested in Major League Soccer as spectator sport than the English Premier League. I even floated my theories two years ago in a running debate with Christopher Harris of EPL Talk. The only point I argued with Mr. Harris where I was correct is that the Mexican League is the most popular spectator league in America.
The FMF outpaces the EPL by a wide margin among spectators. But my theory that MLS too outpaced the EPL thanks to the decent TV ratings enjoyed by the US Men’s National Team was off the mark. In fact MLS matches rate better in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and Telefutura than they do in English. Much of this is due to interest in the FMF among the Latino audience in the US and particular players.
For example in the five telecasts on ESPN Deportes between April 11th and the end of May, three achieved a rating share of 0.5 or less while the matches involving Chivas USA achieved higher ratings. The matchup with Cuauhtémoc Blanco and the Chicago Fire achieved a whooping 1.3 share on Deportes while only garnering a 0.2 English language rating on ESPN 2. Every ESPN telecast this season has gained a higher rating on Deportes than on ESPN 2.
ESPN’s ratings on MLS matches thus far this season peaked with the Seattle-Red Bull opener at a 0.3 and have not achieved higher than a 0.2 rating since, which would make it among the least attractive programs for advertisers on the ESPN family of networks in prime time. Only one ESPN2 telecast this season got more than 250,000 viewers, again the season opener between Seattle and New York which had 254,000 viewers.
I know this has been brought up repeatedly but it begs repeating. When fewer football viewing options were available in 1999 (and also ironically the year Doug Logan was fired as MLS commissioner and replaced by Don Garber) , MLS averaged a 0.5 rating on ESPN/ESPN 2 and a 0.9 rating on ABC, and at the time it was thought to be underperforming.
The picture is even bleaker on Fox Soccer Channel with its anglicized audience and commentators. MLS has averaged a 0.1 rating on that network this season and is being watched by the same number of households as the WPS. This is not shocking when you think about: for more sophisticated football fans, WPS is a more enjoyable game with technical skill and tactical awareness being higher than in many MLS matches. MLS has evolved to a point where the players are far better than the managers, which makes watching MLS frustrating for some.
Additionally, WPS has marketed its matches well and in two cases FSC has been forced to show MLS matches that are played during a US National Team qualifying date, a time when most US based fans are focused on more important things. Furthermore, MLS has a small base of fans generally in MLS cities, and has yet to become a truly national product. Many of these fans are at MLS matches being played at the same time. Those soccer fans inclined to watch MLS outside of MLS markets could very well be attending USL or PDL matches at the very same time.
The disappointing ratings for MLS are all the more upsetting to me personally when compared to the ratings for the Premier League on FSC. The top flight of English Football averaged a 0.2 rating on the network while the FA Cup averaged a 0.3. However, certain matches gained remarkable viewership: For example the Liverpool-Chelsea clash gained a 0.9 rating for the network.
Even Serie A with its odd start times including a feature match beginning a 6am on the west coast has outdrawn MLS on the network, averaging 8,000 more viewers. Much of my discussion with Christopher Harris two years ago centered on start times: MLS in primetime and European football in the morning with odd starts. But my theory was wrong- primetime games haven’t helped MLS cut through the clutter of American sports fan indifference and European football fan snobbishness.
Thankfully, MLS is only in year three of an eight year rights deal with ESPN which was shrewdly negotiated by SUM who also acquired from FIFA the English language TV rights to the World Cup and Confederations Cup through 2014 and sold those on the ESPN.