MLS 2010 Season Viewership Down 12% on ESPN2

So much for the “World Cup Bounce” that Major League Soccer must have been hoping for in the form of higher TV ratings after the most watched World Cup tournament in the history of the United States concluded in July. The TV ratings for MLS games on ESPN2 are in, and it’s more of a “World Cup Splat.” Regular season ratings for MLS on ESPN2 dropped 12% compared to last season.

According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN2 averaged 249,000 viewers for 25 MLS telecasts during the 2010 season, down 12% from last year (284,000, 24 telecasts), and down 2% from 2008 (253,000, 25 telecasts). To put the numbers in perspective, ESPN2 averaged 258,000 viewers for WNBA regular season games this year, and Versus averaged 366,000 viewers for IndyCar racing.

According to Sports Business Daily, the top match of the season on ESPN2 was Sounders/Galaxy on July 4 (391,000) — meaning that not a single MLS telecast on ESPN2 this season drew over 400,000 viewers. To put that in perspective, four telecasts topped 400,000 viewers last season.

How does the 391,000 number compare to the English Premier League matches shown on ESPN2 this season? For a 4:30am PT/7:30am ET Saturday game shown on September 25 between Manchester City and Chelsea, the viewing audience was 428,000. And earlier this year, in April 2010, the viewing audience for Manchester United against Chelsea on ESPN2 was 526,000.

While viewing numbers for MLS on ESPN2 took a significant tumble, TV ratings for MLS games on Fox Soccer Channel remained flat. Fox Soccer Channel, whose MLS telecasts aired primarily on Saturday nights, saw its slate of 31 matches average 53,000 viewers this season, flat with last season. Fox’s Galaxy-Red Bulls match on August 14, which marked the first game for Red Bulls MF Rafael Marquez, was FSC’s most-viewed game telecast this season with 144,000 viewers. To put that into context, Fox Soccer Channel’s viewing audience for the 2010-11 opening weekend game between Liverpool and Arsenal was 291,000 viewers (an 8am PT/11am ET broadcast on a Sunday).

Critics will argue that ESPN2 and Fox Soccer Channel didn’t promote the MLS games or that a network such as Versus would be able to do a better job. But the reality is that Major League Soccer has been a disaster on television this season. When viewers can choose to watch games from most major soccer leagues around the world, MLS will almost always lose because it can’t compete on that level. Where Major League Soccer works best is on the local level providing quality entertainment at an affordable price for soccer fans who are fortunate to live near a MLS club. But for the vast majority of soccer fans nationwide, MLS is practically “invisible” on television even within its own country.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the TV ratings for the 2010 MLS Playoffs are improved. There are definitely some enticing games on offer, but will fans turn up and watch the games on television? We’ll have to wait and see.

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