The Barclays Premier League may be the most popular sports league in the world, but it is not the most popular football league in the United States. That distinction would fall to the Mexican League. But now, we have empirical data that the EPL is trailing our own top flight domestic league, Major League Soccer in interest, awareness and support.
MLS has seen a 15% increase in viewership on ESPN2 this season and a 60% increase in viewership on Fox Soccer Channel. ESPN2’s viewership for MLS matches is significantly higher than the networks viewership thus far for Premier League or La Liga matches, despite the fact that, MLS game times on the network shift from week to week while EPL and La Liga matches are always at the same time. Additionally, ESPN Deportes ratings are way up as well.
Matches involving David Beckham averaged over 400,000 viewers on the network. Seattle’s admission to the league also helped the surge in interest with the Sounders match against DC United in May being watched by 550,000 viewers, a season high.
Matches on Univision owned Telefutura have dropped slightly, but still draw more average eyeballs than the EPL or La Liga telecasts on ESPN. Telefutura’s MLS telecasts due have a set start time every Sunday and do admittedly lag far behind the network’s FMF matches in the ratings.
While MLS TV ratings are lower than they were in 1997, they are now higher than they were in 2002 or 2007, so the positive movement is encouraging. The viewers lost between 1997 and 2002 may have been due to a few factors including the contraction of the league’s Florida franchises as well as the growth in the availability of foreign football on television.
MLS not only leads the EPL in TV viewership, but this year recorded a better average attendance than football leagues in Spain and Italy. With Philadelphia, the nation’s 5th largest TV market joining MLS next season, it is hard to imagine this upward trend in both attendance and TV viewership not accelerating.
Twenty years from now, the world of football is more likely to resemble the fiscally disciplined approach of Major League Soccer and less likely to reflect the current order of things. In this global recessionary time, MLS has led the way to stabilizing the sport with a salary cap, squad limits and slow growth, while many top leagues in Europe (France and Germany are exceptions) are spending their way into oblivion.
American viewers have clearly voted that they would rather see a fiscally restrained competitive product, than star laden but predictable one. Now, the big question is whether the outside world of football will see the impact Don Garber and MLS has made, and adopt some changes that reflect our times.
MLS itself has to make some changes to its business model to continue to have its competitive edge, but for skeptic of MLS’ business and leadership like myself, these numbers speak volumes. Don Garber knew what he was doing all along.