MLS Cup 2012 may have been a roaring success for David Beckham’s publicity team, but the TV ratings for the US league’s annual cup was worse than one year ago. Overnight ratings reveal that LA Galaxy versus Houston Dynamo got a 0.7 overnight rating, which was lower than the third round of golf’s World Challenge on NBC (1.0) and lower than MLS Cup 2011, which got a 0.8 rating featuring the same two teams.
While MLS is undoubtedly succeeding at the local level in cities where there are MLS clubs to watch games, MLS continues to fail miserably at convincing TV viewers to tune in to watch the league (or, in this case, the MLS Cup).
The quality of the TV coverage cannot be blamed. Both NBC Sports and ESPN have upped their game, so it’s nothing that the networks are doing that is limiting the amount of interest the games get.
Average attendances at MLS games continue to improve. More teams are joining the league. More soccer specific stadiums are being built. But the league continues to stumble in the TV ratings department.
The popularity of soccer is growing by leaps and bounds throughout the United States, but outside of the local areas where MLS has teams, the reason for soccer’s success has been a combination of the record-breaking Premier League TV ratings on US television, the mercurial success of the US women’s national team and the ever popular US men’s national team. Add to that the success of FIFA 13 in crystalizing the popularity of the sport among many of America’s youth.
MLS needs to decide whether it wants to improve its TV ratings or not. The majority of soccer (and sport fans) are not tuning in to watch MLS Cups because of three main reasons:
1. The league lacks credibility amongst most soccer fans. If you combined MLS’s East and West divisions into one end-of-the-season table, the two MLS Cup 2012 finalists finished the season in eighth and ninth positions. Why bother following a league throughout the entire season, only for the two eventual finalists to slip into the playoffs given a late run of form?
The first and most important reason why someone should watch the North American league is broken. Fix that by eliminating the playoffs (a system that is born from traditional American sports such as baseball and gridiron football) and MLS will automatically become more credible overnight.
2. MLS needs to seriously consider promotion-relegation. The age old debate of whether MLS should have promotion/relegation or not could go on for days without a consensus being reached. But the fact of the matter is that MLS needs to seriously consider the long-term implications of not having a promotion-relegation system in place, as well as what its future plans are for the expansion of the league.
MLS is on the precipice of having 20 teams in its league. But if/when the Queens-based New York team becomes team number 20, MLS needs to realize that there are giant regions across the United States where there is no local MLS team. FIFA will not look too kindly at professional leagues having more than 20 teams in a division, so MLS’s future plans should be to form a second division of quality teams. US Soccer and MLS should consider an acquisition or strategic partnership with NASL and USL to set up a quality second division where there are opportunities for teams to get promoted to the top division of MLS. And, vice-versa, there’s an opportunity for poorly performing teams in MLS to get relegated. This, I realize, would cause seismic shifts in how MLS operates as a league, but in order to grow MLS nationally as well as to begin growing its TV audience, MLS needs to make some serious changes to how the league operates. If the league continues the way it has been doing, it will never be recognized as a legitimate soccer league by hardcore soccer fans.
3. Improve the quality of soccer. The quality of MLS soccer will never be as good as the best leagues in the world. However, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The quality of MLS games has improved over the previous few seasons, but by removing the ridiculousness of the MLS playoff system, this will force teams to play to the top of their game throughout the entire season thereby improving the quality of soccer on the field.
MLS is certainly winning hearts and minds at the local level by providing an entertaining, family friendly experience that is affordable and fun to watch. While this works on a local level, the league needs to try harder to establish itself as a more credible league that is worth watching on television. TV viewers can choose between any of the top leagues from around the world. MLS has the foundation, but serious changes are needed if it wants to succeed in the TV game.