Major League Soccer Is Losing the Television Ratings Battle
Throughout June and early July, millions of people in the United States watched the World Cup. Almost 25 million watched the World Cup Final. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, swarmed into bars and restaurants around the country to watch games in public.
Not surprisingly, average Major League Soccer attendances so far this season have risen. That’s encouraging, since support of the game at the local level is improving. However, the past few weeks have been embarrassing for Major League Soccer for several different reasons. Other than an increase in attendances, there has been no World Cup “bounce.” It looks likely that top US talent Landon Donovan will be heading to Europe. His team, one of the best in Major League Soccer, was knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League Wednesday night by a USSF-Division 2 side. And perhaps worst of all, the TV ratings for the league continue to underperform. Despite success in local markets, the fact is that Major League Soccer is failing on a national level.
For the first 14 MLS games televised by ESPN2 this season, the average viewing audience is 251,000. And these are for games that are shown during mostly prime-time hours. The TV ratings are so bad that the WNBA has better ratings on ESPN2. Yes, the WNBA.
During the 2009-2010 Premier League season on ESPN2, all of the top ten highest rated games had higher ratings than the average ESPN2 rating for MLS of 251,000. And that doesn’t even include the record breaking audience for a Premier League game on US television last season when 526,000 people watched the 4:30am PT/7:30am ET kick-off between Manchester United and Chelsea.
Meanwhile at Fox Soccer Channel, the TV ratings for Major League Soccer are even worse with an average of just 53,000 viewers per game. In comparison, the average viewing audience for the Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel was 90,000 as of the 2008-2009 season.
Based on viewing numbers such as these, it would be no surprise if Fox Soccer Channel decides not to renew its contract with Major League Soccer to broadcast games in the future, which ends at the end of this season. Versus has been in talks with Major League Soccer regarding picking up those rights. However, it’s going to be tough for MLS to negotiate a decent TV rights fee when the ratings on Fox Soccer Channel have been so poor.
Back to attendances for a minute, it’s quite telling that out of the top ten soccer games with the highest attendances during 2010 in the United States, not one of them has been a Major League Soccer game. The top five games are Mexico away games. The sixth game is the USA’s friendly against Turkey. Meanwhile, seven through ten are friendlies that featured Major League Soccer teams playing foreign opposition. However, let’s not kid ourselves. The large attendances were due to teams such as Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, Celtic and Boca Juniors, not MLS clubs. In fairness to Seattle, though, their attendances have been superb.
Hopefully the acquisition of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez will help boost TV ratings for Major League Soccer. But that’s just one team. After such a successful World Cup as the one we just had, you would expect there to be an increase in TV ratings but so far the results have been extremely poor. It’s obvious that the crowd of people who swarmed to the World Cup have not swarmed to watching MLS games on television and that’s a huge problem especially during the European off-season when MLS has its biggest opportunity to increase its TV ratings.
Major League Soccer may be winning the war to bring more fans into stadiums on a local level, but the league is losing the battle to increase TV ratings. It’s not a good situation to be in for soccer in this country especially with the Premier League ready to kick off in just 10 days time.