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Why Major League Soccer Has Bigger Issues Than Just Poor TV Ratings

don garber Why Major League Soccer Has Bigger Issues Than Just Poor TV Ratings

Major League Soccer has begun the bidding process to determine who will acquire the US media rights to the top flight domestic league. The current deal between ESPN and MLS, which was agreed in 2006, and expires next year, was packaged together with rights to home USMNT games. ESPN is currently paying less than $9 million a year for the rights. NBC, who are paying $10 million a year to show MLS games, are also in a negotiating period with MLS, but while NBC is interested in renewing, the chatter has been that NBC first wants MLS to make some changes.

In recent weeks, two excellent articles were published about MLS TV ratings (the viewing numbers this year are down considerably compared to last year). The first, entitled MLS ratings drift by The Shin Guardian blog, argues that the league needs to create consistent scheduling such as a Friday night weekly game (as well as consistent start games for games throughout each weekend of the season), institute flex scheduling (to rearrange schedules and/or TV schedules to accommodate games or teams that become hot during the season), claim a holiday (in order to have MLS put a stamp on a national holiday each year as a traditional MLS day or weekend) and fill in the gaps (when traditional American sports are not being played, and sports fans are looking for games to watch).

The second article entitled Two years later, MLS and NBC continue to make familiar mistakes, written by Yahoo contributor Zac Wassink, mentions the story of a MLS employee who was disheartened by the paltry 83,000 people who tuned into a MLS game on NBC in August despite the fact that there were no other sporting events going up against the game at that same time.

While I agree with the ideas expressed in The Shin Guardian piece, these suggestions – if embraced by MLS – would have only a slight positive impact on increasing the TV viewing audience of MLS games on US television. What these articles fail to point out is that MLS has bigger issues that need resolving that inhibit the league from producing greater TV viewing ratings that would be on par or greater than other major soccer leagues.

Thousands of words have been spent on other websites, forums and social media theorizing why MLS ratings were poor in the past. FOX Soccer was blamed for its poor production value. FOX upped their game but the ratings didn’t prosper. Many MLS fans argued that NBC would be the answer with its better production values and ability to show games on national television. However, despite better ratings than FOX Soccer (it couldn’t have gotten much worse), those vocal critics of the poor job that FOX did and how NBC would change everything are now silent.

The bottom line is that Major League Soccer is sub par to the other leagues that are available on television.

Even with a more consistent schedule, a night dedicated to a game of the week, and other changes, the fact is that it’s not going to make that much of a difference.

Based on TV ratings, the growth of soccer in the United States has been largely fueled by the US Men’s National Team, the US Women’s National Team, the Mexican national team and English Premier League. Major League Soccer isn’t even on the map.

The issues that MLS faces are much deeper than working more closely with TV companies to formulate a better plan. Namely, the issues that MLS face — and desperately need to resolve — are quality, relevance and authenticity.

1) Quality – The aspect of Major League Soccer that’s the most difficult to measure is how to rate the quality of soccer that’s being played on the pitch. The TV ratings are the best barometer we soccer fans have. There’s obviously an incredible disconnect between the more than 1 million people who are watching live non-MLS soccer on US television each weekend compared to the average viewership for a MLS game this season of 102,000 (on NBC) and 227,000 (on ESPN).

The MLS product on the pitch is slower, more physical, less attractive to watch, more prone to poor refereeing decisions and, most damaging of all, features players who have – on average – poor ball control skills particularly with their first touch. There are exceptions to the rule, but overall MLS is an inferior product compared with the other leagues that are being shown on US television, which are currently more accessible and abundantly available.

The net result is a TV viewing experience where you’re watching inferior soccer. Unless it’s your favorite team that you’re tuning in to see, there are few reasons to watch MLS, but there are plenty of other choices to select from featuring games of higher quality at the same time.

2) Relevance – In the majority of soccer leagues around the world, every game matters isn’t a cliche. It’s a fact. But with Major League Soccer, every game matters only when it comes to the tail end of the season. For 2013, 52% of the top teams in the 19 team league automatically qualify for the playoffs, so with little incentive to finish higher in the table, teams can coast during different times of the season knowing that reaching the playoffs is the goal for the first phase of their season. Once the playoffs start, a team that’s conceivably in last place in the playoffs can go all the way to win the season title. As a result, what relevance is there on the games earlier in the season where teams may take their foot off the gas? And as a result, why should the fans bother tuning in?

3) Authenticity – Other than the quality of play, the biggest complaint about Major League Soccer is its lack of authenticity. The league lacks a single table. The league has an unbalanced schedule, meaning that not every team in the league plays each other once home and away. That creates unfair advantages for teams who may be in a weaker conference, or may play more games against weaker teams.

When the league moves to 20 teams in 2015, hopefully MLS will decide to create a single table with an even schedule.

If a MLS team is in your local area, that’s where the league thrives (despite average attendances so far this season being lower than last season) – where it offers an affordable and friendly fan atmosphere giving soccer fans something that TV cannot provide – a live, in-person experience. But when it’s a choice of watching MLS on TV, the league loses almost every single time. Other than great atmospheres at Seattle and Portland home games, there are few reasons to watch the league during the regular season.

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About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
View all posts by Christopher Harris →

69 Responses to Why Major League Soccer Has Bigger Issues Than Just Poor TV Ratings

  1. Peter Quinn says:

    I was one of those viewers who gave the MLS a shot and was disappointed. I badmouthed the league and its quality for a loooong time.

    But I gave it another shot (I needed my footy fix). The quality of football is still not great, but it has it’s moments. I’m willing to grow with the MLS. Endure the growing pains with them. But I won’t devote as much time to the league as I do the English, Spanish, Germany and Italian leagues (all divisions). They just have more quality and history.

    I think a large group of people gave the league and shot, only to be disappointed, and now they just won’t give it another chance.

    I think people need to be a little more open-minded. There are fun games to watch. Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, to name a few.

    • Michael says:

      This article seems to be seeking ways to appeal to existing fans of foreign football, and I don’t think that’s the direction to go at all. MLS needs more American viewers.

      With that in mind, the problems are not of the “need a Friday night match every week” variety (ESPN has been attempting a Sunday night game – hasn’t been working) or even the “single table/authenticity” variety, which the vast majority of Americans don’t know or care about.

      Agreed on the quality, but the larger issue is: why should someone from BFE care about MLS when they don’t have a local club, and why should a local fan care about anyone else? Let’s see:

      - There are no “storied” franchises (although the Cascadia history comes close.

      - No one wins enough to satisfy the many US frontrunners who have Yankees, Lakers and Cowboys jerseys in their closet. “True” MLS fans cherish parity, but America at large does not.

      - Despite footy being a top betting sport overseas, it isn’t over here, and thanks to the parity rules (once again) MLS is too iffy to wager on. Gambling is why American football fans will sit and actually watch clubs they hate.

      - The most avid MLS fans are of the “don’t care about any other club but mine” variety. (Subgenres include “don’t care about CONCACAF” and “don’t care about US Open Cup.”) When I go to other cities and they hear where I’m from, they’ll ask me about our NFL or MLB team, but MLS fans seem to be very insular and territorial (note the vitriol when US Soccer asked a couple of Seattle people to come help capo).

      When you think about it, all MLS would really have to hang its hat on IS quality, short of the dynamic aspects available from every other major US pro sport (plus college football).

  2. Roehl says:

    Ah, so this is a pro/rel, single table article, disguised as a soccer ratings article. Never mind.

    • Christopher Harris says:

      There’s no mention of promotion/relegation. I don’t believe that can work in the current soccer climate in the States.

      • Solomon says:

        To be fair, you did devote part 3 of your argument to the single table. And point 2 was that in other leagues every game matters (“it’s a fact”), but struggling to see how, say, a Sunderland-Norwich City match matters at all unless you are talking about relegation.

      • Ben says:

        You say that in other leagues every game matters (which I don’t necessarily agree with) but the reason that those leagues have more meaningful games is because the teams at the bottom are fighting relegation and the teams out of the race for first are fighting for a spot in one of the European cups. It’s tough to replicate that in the US where relegation isn’t going to be a possibility and the Champion’s league doesn’t have nearly the history yet. The drama will have to come from things like playoff positioning. Other sports do this by giving out bonuses like division championships, homefield advantage, etc. That may be a route MLS should go rather than eliminating playoffs altogether.

        I’m not sure there’s a solution for the league other than to continue to improve the quality by increasing salaries and waiting out the time it takes for outsiders to notice. People forget how young it is compared to other soccer leagues.

        • CTBlues says:

          Since Pro/Rel will likely never happen in the US how about the teams that finish in the bottom 3 spots start the following season off with negative points. That would be incentive to not finish at the bottom of the table. What is more important to you not starting off the season with 3 losses or a high draft pick?

      • Kephern says:

        I like the article points, quality and relevance are the 2 most important. Promotion-relegation is necessary because it promotes competition and most of all ambition. I think just having even 2 teams relegated and 2 promoted would even get the process rolling. The passion to build greatness is not present in the MLS. That passion is what is needed to drive the sport and actually create supporters.

  3. gbewing says:

    agree with this statement

    “The MLS product on the pitch is slower, more physical, less attractive to watch, more prone to poor refereeing decisions and, most damaging of all, features players who have – on average – poor ball control skills particularly with their first touch. ”
    I do think it’s improving and it’s not universal. I see every SKC game and there have been games when the quality was quite good (Montreal-KC game 1) and other games when it was atrocious. The quality of play is better but consistency is lacking

    strongly disagree with this statement

    “Other than great atmospheres at Seattle and Portland home games, there are few reasons to watch the league during the regular season.”

    There are several exciting venues with games- the quality will come but the first priority is to get the fan experience right
    I struggled to watch non SKC games on TV but each year I find this changing-and this year I had some “can’t miss” reminders set up Portland-Seattle and anyone who didn’t get something from the recent Colorado-Seattle game is lying or dead.

    There are truths in this article but not hard truths. Most MLS fans get we are not a top World League but it’s our league and I think this site has a little bit of hateritus similar to the complaints about the English press regarding their national team on the show this week. These are worth discussing but I don’t see balance where things that MLS is doing right are not mentioned no matter what- it’s just another MLS sucks article.

    My personal memories just from this season MLS moment are filled with thrilling and long lasting moments as well as the comfort of our local soccer traditions. The AS game against ROMA was an experience I will never forget- even though Roma dominated, I saw Totti I saw that Roma was going to be a quality side before Europe did, I saw great football, and I’ve seen it in MLS matches to. We’re not going anywhere and even if you don’t we do “ENJOY OUR FOOTBALL”

  4. Smokey Bacon says:

    I think your last point sums it up for me. Unless you have a team in your area it’s hard to care about MLS. When I lived in the Bay Area I was an Earthquakes season ticket holder. Now my nearest team is 3 hours away and my interest has waned.

    The other points are all true. The quality is what it is. It will probably improve over time but the league will never be comparable to the top European leagues.

    MLS needs real competition with promotion and relegation. Merging with the NASL would create a two tier league, broaden the fan base and create more rivalries and matches that mean something every week. Combine that with consistent scheduling and they may have something.

    They could also use a MlLS Download show to educate the casual viewer.

    I want MLS to succeed. They’ve done a good job up until now but they seem to have plateaued.

  5. Jeremy says:

    One thing I hate is that despite the marginal, if any, increase in viewership for the MLS Cup game, the MLS won’t go to a table. They don’t need relegation. They need to focus on getting viewers, and having playoffs doesn’t help the ratings. Time to move on, and give the teams a reason to care for 34 games.

    I have a rule about MLS. If I watch any European club football on that day, I skip MLS. I just can’t stomach the drop in quality. There are a few players that stand out in the league. Thierry Henry visibly not giving a sh*t during games says a lot.

  6. Proud Eurosnob says:

    I think the MLS should stop treating themselves like cartoon characters and start acting like they want to play each and every match as if the European scouts are watching, or wanting to beat the Liga MX clubs in the CONCACAF Champions league on a regular basis, not just the occasional “Dos A Cero” ‘murica’ display as exhibited at the recent WCQ.

  7. AtlantaPompey says:

    I will never be really interested in MLS until we have a team in Atlanta, which the rumor mill claims will happen relatively soon. Until then I will support the Silverbacks with my attendance and watch major matches on tv since my adopted Pompey is wallowing in the muck of League Two.

    I will watch some matches with a good atmosphere, but it is obvious the quality is much lower than what I can see on tv all weekend. It is difficult to find the matches sometimes. Also, since they love to show Seattle and Portland, it is difficult to justify staying up late to watch a live match.

  8. Brad says:

    Every time I read one of these “What is Wrong with MLS” articles I wonder what the author truly expects from a league that is less than 20 years old in a country where the sport was basically a joke to 97% of the country.

    Every single problem mentioned above would be irrelevant had the league had decades to grow organically by building a strong, solid fan base of generations passing down the culture of the sport. This is only now just starting to happen, and I would suggest that people take a look back, recognize how far the league has come in less than two decades, and settle down with this constant need to fix something that is not all that broken.

    To each specific point mentioned in the article:

    Quality – Improving the quality would likely help, but I would be no more inclined to watch Columbus play Salt Lake City than I am now. Like any league, MLS need to build up a strong support among fanbases that care about a particular team. You could decrease the quality of play in the NFL by 50% and you would still have millions of people in Wisconsin watching football on Sunday because THEIR Packers are playing.

    2) Relevance – This just comes down to personal preference. I would prefer it if the MLS was like other leagues without playoffs at all. However, as other American leagues show, a majority of the people in this country prefer playoffs. One could also make the argument that the current system increases relevancy as you don’t have 75% of the league that has no chance of winning every year. Either way, this is not even close to a major issue for MLS.

    3) Authenticity – Again I would prefer that every team played every other team an equal number of times. However, this too is not even on the radar of major obstacles for the league. Every other sport in this country has unbalanced scheduling. Even baseball where they play 162 and you would think that they would be able to fit in a game or two against every other team in the league.

    A majority of people in this country watch sports, and this goes for every sport, because they love their team. Very few people actually care about the little details like scheduling or how many teams make the playoffs.

    • sucka99 says:

      Soccer fans are willing to give MLS the benefit of the doubt but these issues speak to whether the people bankrolling the party will. If NBC or ESPN keep getting low ratings hire much are they going to bid for TV rights and how will that affect MLS’ ability to progress?

  9. Jason says:

    As strange as it sounds – It’s easier for me to actually “get” a Premier League match on TV. I paid for the MLS direct kick package but it’s not in HD so that’s hard to watch.

  10. Dean Stell says:

    Gaffer….you’re speaking my language.

    Honestly, I feel very sorry for MLS. They’ve done a LOT of good work and they’re still getting run over by the availability of better leagues on TV. And…..it can get worse before it gets better. What would be easier: Build MLS to a higher quality league or get English announcers on some South American games?

    The one thing that MLS has going is the live audience. EPL, La Liga, etc. cannot replicate that for an American fan. But, once you put it on TV, it is an inferior product. And you have to be pretty determined to watch a LOT of soccer before you’re ready to watch an MLS game because there are probably 20 more accessible games that are higher quality.

    But….quality won’t improve until the money improves…..and money won’t improve until viewership improves….and viewership won’t improve until quality improves. Catch-22.

    Honestly, I think MLS should maybe slow down a second. Focus on the team’s local markets. Become THE team in those markets. Build a local fanbase. Build a local TV product for local fans who cannot attend every game. Be on the radio for people who are in the car or at work. Don’t a few teams like the Galaxy already make WAY more money off their local TV package than whatever trickles down from MLS headquarters?

    I’m not a huge MLS fan, but I do applaud what they’ve done. At the same time, I think they have a very long and very thankless task in front of them and no guarantees of success.

    • @ORLsoccer says:

      The “catch-22″ you mention is only true to a point. Audiences WILL watch an inferior product if they feel it has relevance. NCAA football is massive despite inferior play relative to the NFL. The trick is creating allegiances and traditions which can only be developed over time (or with clever marketing!).

  11. Len F says:

    I think that you have to look at MLS growth from two perspectives. The perspective of this article is that of the fan that already enjoys other soccer competitions. There is definitely some opportunity for growth with that audience but I think that it will be difficult to gain traction with this audience because they are competing against the historical relevance of other competitions to each fan.

    I think the opportunity lies with the other much broader audience – the average sports fan in the United States. This is the fan that doesn’t follow golf regularly but will turn on the Sunday round of the Masters. This is the fan that doesn’t follow NASCAR but will turn on the last hour of the Daytona 500. This is the fan that may not follow the NHL or NBA regularly but will watch a game 7 of a playoff series. This is how an average sports fan finds a larger interest in a sport that he or she previously didn’t have.

    I think quality of play is definitely the biggest barrier. The Premier League is far more likely to catch the stray eye than MLS. I highly doubt a single table has any impact to measurable growth and expanded playoffs have done little to dissuade the average American sports fan from other sports. I do think that Shin Guardian suggestions are good. Just last week I had intended to watch the Portland v. Seattle match but completely forgot about it come Sunday night. They need some element of a consistent schedule.

  12. Steve in DC says:

    I really just never get the “it’s not the best quality” argument. You know what half of professional football fans spend their Saturdays watching, myself included? College football. AND CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW SUBPAR THE QUALITY IS BY COMPARISON?? Those young kids are just so slow and they play so sloppy! About 1% of the quarterbacks can make NFL-quality throws and man half of the guys just have no future in the sport. Yet we watch it anyway. That’s weird, right?

    Knock it all you like, but here in America, we LOVE parity. And the playoffs help give everyone a chance, along with the draft, allocation order, etc. This year should show you that you can’t take your foot off the gas — some teams in the race for the Supporters’ Shield could lose a game this weekend and be sitting in the last playoff spot. It’s that close!

    In fact, I’d argue that free agency and the unbelievable parity in the NFL is exactly the reason that league has boomed over the last decade. Unless you’re a Browns fan, you know that your team is a draft and a few signings away from making the playoffs, where anything can happen. You’ve always got a chance. And we love that. I still can’t understand the bleakness that comes with being a supporter of an EPL club that knows you will go your entire life without ever seeing your team lift the trophy or go to the Champions League. That’s team as way of life, not entertainment. And as much as I love watching EPL, they can keep it, honestly. Because that sucks.

    • Dust says:

      The NFL system is a closed loop cash cow treating fans like ATM’s with false hope thru the usual bust 1st round draft pick joke. On a 53 man team roster fans are suckered into thinking that 1 1st round no1 pick will change a franchise. e.g Browns, jacksonville, Detroit, Buffalo, those fans don’t think they can win a Super Bowl anytime soon

      Parity in the superbowl is the dream not the reality, 32 teams for one trophy, english football has 92 teams with 4 divisions titles up for grabs and 2 knock out trophies.

      Your comparison of a knock out competition to a league format is ridiculous.

      Compare the FA cup winners parity for the same time period.

      Since 1969 (the first super bowl) there have been by my count 16 different winners of the FA Cup. and 18 different Superbowl winners.

      Hardly a massive gap is it! Just 2 more winners for your knock out competition Super Bowl compared to The FA cup.

      an additional competition The League Cup has 22 different teams win it since 1969.

      So, as you can see when comparing English football knock competitions out with NFL knock out’s its not close. english football has more opportunities and parody than the NFL and these are important parts of a community, NFL “Franchises” are not.

      • Steve in DC says:

        Well, as for general reading comprehension, my initial point isn’t that NFL is a great comparison to EPL, it’s that fans of NFL tolerate the enormous drop in quality to watch college football. I don’t buy the argument that “MLS is just SOOOOO poor I can’t even bring my eyeballs to watch it because they will ONLY watch the very best touches of the football, like say when Hull play Sunderland twice this year in the SUPER AWESOME EPL.”

        But on the rest of your non-sequitur, as we ALL know, every fan adores the FA and League/Capitol One/Carling/Consolation/Reserve Team cups, also known as the “we have no effing shot at EVER winning the premier league so we’ll pretend to be happy about this consolation trophy” trophies. Dreams of the League Cup are surely what keep fans of Hull City and West Brom and teams 8-92 from offing themselves at the persistent truth that they’ll never never never win the league.

        I’m certainly not comparing a special knock out tourney that almost no one cares about stateside until the final to the NFL regular season and playoffs. One league (NFL) decides their championship with a knockout, and another gives out their consolation trophy with it. Apples and oranges.

  13. Ben says:

    Sorry, any article that cites “authenticity” as if it were a real thing is a loser. “Authenticity” is a label applied to products to sell them to feeble minded people thinking that “authenticity” equals “quality.” Outside of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, the MLS isn’t that far behind in quality, and frankly there are loads of games in each of those leagues that hold no interest for anyone outside the local fans. QPR – Sunderland anyone?

    • Dust says:

      “Outside of England, Spain, Germany, and Italy, the MLS isn’t that far behind in quality”

      Gaffer, these new comedy writers are amazing, great job hiring them, really… : -/

  14. Tony Butterworth says:

    You can add this to International Breaks as a subject we completely agree on.

    I simply don’t know the answer. I have been a footy fan for almost 50 years (how sad) and there is no reason for me not to like MLS but I just don’t. I don’t give it a chance, I’m not interested and I don’t like it.

    I really couldn’t write an article like this because my reasoning is irrational. I just don’t like it, don’t consider it “real” soccer and there seems to be nothing that can change my mind about it.

    I have no explanation.

  15. This whole “single table” argument is so incredibly European and shows a lack of understanding as to what sports fans in America enjoy. Under a single table, there will be the same problem with MLS that I already have with the European leagues, which is that in the last few weeks of the season, the majority of the teams – those not at the top of the table – provide no value to me as a viewer. Why would I watch Swansea vs. Sunderland late in the season? Or Norwich vs. West Ham? At some point, there are only so many European concepts that can be applied to American sport before people just end up losing interest.

    And frankly, speaking to your “quality” argument, TV ratings are a ridiculous measure of “quality”. TV ratings measure how many people watch an event, and frankly even that is suspect. “Quality” is entirely subjective and, though I myself do not have a proper way of evaluating quality, know that counting the eyeballs of viewers certainly isn’t it.

  16. Jessie says:

    I recently handicapped best likely to least likely to get MLS rights. Here is my analysis http://jmanmediazone.blogspot.com/2013/10/handicapping-mls-rights.html

  17. Brett says:

    “The MLS product on the pitch is slower, more physical, less attractive to watch, more prone to poor refereeing decisions and, most damaging of all, features players who have – on average – poor ball control skills particularly with their first touch.”

    I don’t agree with some of the above quote. I believe the MLS is faster than the EPL most of the time, and I disagree that it’s less attractive to watch. Why? MLS games have more goals than EPL. The defenses are not as good in MLS and the games are more open, back and forth, and a lot of the time more entertaining. The EPL defenses are so good sometimes that the game is boring. Just my two cents.

    • Dust says:

      “I believe the MLS is faster than the EPL most of the time,”

      Are you watching the BPL on DVR with FFWD frame by frame?

      “The defenses are not as good in MLS and the games are more open, back and forth, and a lot of the time more entertaining.”

      ahh I see its a wind up…good one! well written comedy, really very good…great satire…right?

      • Marc L says:

        Perhaps he saw Tony Pulis-era Stoke against West Ham on some bitterly cold, rainy night in January and extrapolated that to the EPL as a whole?

        No wait, even that would have been at a higher tempo than most MLS matches.

  18. Garry says:

    I want to like MLS. I really do. As a huge footy fan I’ll watch just about any match. But for some reason I just can’t seem to latch on with MLS. Not being in an MLS city I’m sure has something to do with it (KC and Chicago are the closest at 6-8 hours away) but I think there are other reasons as well.

    Quality of play is certainly one issue. Without a vested rooting interest it makes many games hard to watch. But there are other bad optics as well, including all the artificial turf fields that seem to make touch and control that much worse as the ball literally caroms all over the park (looking at you, Seattle).

    For me consistent start times and match days are a big issue. I never know when games are on. So I do agree with that portion of the piece.

    Lastly, and I think this is a biggie, is MLS’s blackout policy. Who the hell does MLS think it is that it can afford to blackout ANY game? MLS needs to expose as many soccer fans as possible to its game and for that fans need access. I have DirecTV’s sports pack and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve plopped down on the couch wanting to watch footy only for 3-4 MLS games to be on but blacked out. How am I supposed to connect with this league when I can’t watch it? MLS wants exposure but keeps potential fans in the dark with this stupid policy.

    • Steve in DC says:

      Well, that’s in the terms of NBC, ESPN and UniMas’s deal with the MLS for any national broadcasts. And as the article astutely points out, the league is hardly in any position to be dictating those kinds of terms to their broadcast partners at this point who are barely paying any money for the rights to begin with. If NBC says “we want you to black out our national broadcasts on your cable/streaming packages,” MLS has next to no leverage to tell them no. Just the way those negotiations work.

      They black them out on MLS Live and Direct Kick for the national broadcasts. Which are also available live on Watch ESPN and NBC streaming just like the EPL games. No streaming for the UniMas games that I know of.

  19. john marzan says:

    can we all agree that when the USMNT wins the World Cup in 2014 (beating England), there will be a huge spike in popularity in the MLS?

  20. Marc L says:

    Boy, I agree with pretty much every single word of that article.

    I actually very much want to like the MLS. But from a TV perspective you’re going to see a better product watching Cruz Azul v CF America on the Spanish language channel. ASSUMING that one could not stream anything out of England. France. Italy. Russia. Spain. Germany. Etc etc etc.

    All the MLS TV gimmicks in the world, “owning a holiday,” and the like are not going to change that.

  21. Ed says:

    A single table isn’t going to make any difference if the league continues to have a playoff system. Playoffs are not going away so maybe drop the idea of a single table.

  22. Tim says:

    The bigger issue is a bunch of ex-pats coming to the US thinking they know everything about “soccer” in this country! MLS has been around for 17 years while ever other league you eurosnobs say you support have been around 3x as long. Do you really expect the quality to be up that? If you dont like what we have here then move out or just dont watch. Ill take MLS or NASL over pretending to support a team thousands of miles away that you have never seen play a meaningful game live or have no connection to….With that said, the majority of you only support Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and in some cases Tottenham. I bet you’re all die hards too.

  23. Glen M says:

    There is no fix to this situation. Most American sports fans don’t like football (soccer), even at the top levels. The MLS is a poor example of the sport, so why would an American audience watch it?

    I moved here from England in 1980. I can’t watch my club on tv here. I gave the MLS a chance, it is just unwatchable.

    There are time when I catch a match as I’m channel surfing. But I only last a few errant passes (one every ten seconds) and I turn it off. I’d rather watch replays of European matches on other channels.

  24. John Von Klopp says:

    We do have the “Supporters Shield”. I don’t know how they came up with that name, but it does recognize the league team with the most points at the end of the season. I think the league should make a bigger deal about that. Even call it something that says they are the best. (it sounds like an award for fans.) MLS Cup is a tournament. TV.. I would like one day a week for “the game” similar to Monday Night Football. As for MLS growing, I like it. I don’t want to be MLB, NFL etc. We’re already cooler because we’re a little different. I also don’t wasn’t to start paying $50 for an average ticket. My former $12 tix are now $28. Good for the Fire, they still sell. In fact, MLS avg crowds are bigger than NBA. But we still get that “soccer will never be a major sport” though we are.

  25. goisles01 says:

    I dont think the MLS should be judged since its inception, when it had all those gimmicky rules to draw in viewership of those who think football is boring, but when they started to play with International rules making matches the same, rules wise, to other world clubs.

    I agree about not knowing when any MLS matches are on so its hard to find consistent match times also the fact that its spread out on many different channels and 2 networks.

    I dont consider myself an expert yet on football but I find the MLS matches I do watch are very exciting and entertaining especially since I support Red Bulls. They have had some “crackers” this year and, even though last year he wasnt impressive, Tim Cahill has been clutch this year.

    I used to be interested in soccer once every 4 years but now I cant get enough. every day I crave it. It is actually a credit to MLS to have lasted this long competing for attention with the other major sports leagues in the USA with out the ratings, support, marketing and depth of quality.

    why couldnt a single table work with a playoff system? Isnt that what UEFA Champions league qualifying system is?

    That said my favorite league is the Barclays, I support Liverpool FC. I just find MLS more relevant than most I guess

  26. King of Couches says:

    Part of MLS’s problem–particularly as it relates to television–is that its best teams are rarely on *national* television.

    When MLS airs on ESPN or NBC, it’s virtually always the same teams, most notably Seattle, Portland, D.C., and Philadelphia. MLS’s most consistent squad–Real Salt Lake–and perhaps it’s most exciting–Sporting Kansas City–are rarely if ever on air. As a result, viewers are frequently subjected to the D.C. vs. Philadelphia battle (which isn’t exactly beautiful) or Seattle vs. Portland (which can be pretty good).

    There is also the issue touched upon here: timing. When ESPN does air a Seattle vs. Portland match, it’s at 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. That’s an automatic loss against Sunday Night Football after August and not a major draw during the summer either.

    This doesn’t have to be a difficult fix even under the current model. Two small changes would help a lot. First, as was suggested here, get the better teams on air with flex scheduling. Second, find consisting timing like the BPL (as also suggested here). For example, why not just schedule matches from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays and perhaps a bit earlier on Sundays? This way, folks would have a better opportunity to see MLS’s best product on air more times than not. That would go a long way. Because I have to tell you, if I’m an MLS newcomer and I have to watch the slogfest between DC United and the Philadelphia Union every time MLS is on air, I probably wouldn’t bother either.

  27. Joe says:

    A swansea fan Knocking MLS quality!! Brilliant! I would happily watch an MLS match over a swansea match any day of the week (on DVR at that) Lets be real, this is another “I hate MLS, they are inferior, I masturbate to the EPL daily” article. How many time have we seen this? If you’ve been supporting the EPL for 30 years from the US is there any wonder why you’re not taking to well to the MLS and all its “non-european” ways. This by the way is coming from a first generation american who grew watching the Serie A. I decided one day that I would rather be a real fan here in the states and actually go to games, support my club and actually live it. Best decision of my life. I go to every home game and have watched the play on the field get better each year. You should try it. I guess its not that easy for Chris, no MLS team in Florida huh? Is that why we are upset? Well, I hear Becks might be coming your way. Think about it, you can have your british TV drama unfold right before your eyes! You may not be able to contain yourself.

  28. Martin J. says:

    I don’t think the quality of play is the reason why the MLS is not attracting more viewers. It’s really not that bad. In fact it is better than it has been in the past. Maybe not to the same level as European or some South American standards but nonetheless still decent.

    The MLS is always going to suffer from being marginalized by the other US sports regardless of the quality of the product. Therefore the MLS needs to do something drastic to compete. Maybe they should look into creating a joint league with the Mexican league. I believe, and someone can correct me if I’m wrong, that the Mexican league attracts more TV viewers in the US than MLS viewers. That’s what I would try to do.

  29. Dave says:

    Promotion/Relegation and single table go hand in hand. Without relegation, single table renders the late season meaningless to the clubs that are out of the title picture. Making the playoffs less inclusive only exacerbates this problem. It’s better to keep the current format until promotion/relegation is in place.

    The only real issue I see here is the quality of play. Unless the quality of play improves significantly, reducing the number of teams in the playoffs or adopting a single table format is just another exercise in futility and won’t make much of a difference in terms of TV viewership. Unfortunately, there’s only so much MLS can do to try to improve the quality of play without being able to attract top class players in their prime from around the world.

  30. Having worked 3 1/2 years in NASL, I have come to a conclusion single-table and a balanced schedule would be a mistake for any domestic league in the US/Canada. I feel it is ridiculous on FC Edmonton that they make as many trips to Fort Lauderdale as they do to Minnesota and idiotic that Fort Lauderdale play Edmonton as much as they play Tampa Bay. This is a large continent with enormous travel costs and impact on quality of play for flying hours with connections. This isn’t the UK where every away ground is coach trip away.

    Developing regional rivalries and opportunities for fans to travel is more important than balance.

    I’ll write more on this in the near future on this site.

    As for the quality of play argument, MLS is better then a lot of European leagues but the poor atmosphere at many venues and the overly physical play in the league holds it back. Also the lack of relevance in the bigger picture hurts, but that may just be a CCL victory and World Club Cup appearance away from changing.

    The other issue is the bizarre rules such as allocation money, supplemental drafts, discovery players, etc. This needs to change.

    PRO/REL on the other hand is not realistic at this point. NASL is just not well equipped as a second division yet to handle such a setup. Again, this is a topic I will flesh out in the near future here on WST.

    • Clampdown says:

      Not to mention that there will be no owner spending tens, if not over a hundred, million dollars on a franchise with a risk of being relegated. Not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.

  31. Clampdown says:

    I’ve been attending MLS matches on and off since its inaugural season. In some ways I appreciate that it is different than other soccer/futbol/football leagues around the world. And despite its flaws, it’s ours.

    However, though the quality has improved, it needs to get better, and that’s not going to happen until they allow teams to spend money. The allocation money thing is just plain weird, and the DP rule has resulted in clubs having a few good players and a lot of poor ones. Why not just have a realistic salary cap? If it turns out that some clubs can’t draw enough fans to support it, then so be it. Let them play in a lower tier. Does MLS really need 20-plus clubs right now? Better quality play will drive better attendance and viewership, and that should drive the growth.

  32. Ed of Ct. says:

    MLS shot itself in the head when they folded two Florida club, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale Fusion and Tampa Bay then of the MLS years ago. The Disney Corp. at the time expressed interest in purchasing one of the teams(For Orlando Florida relocation) but the MLS brass was too busy trying to shaft the players union to notice. Now much of the USA media-sports media(Our sports central website etc.) sad to say does NOT regard MLS-Pro soccer as a major sports. Not having a single MLS club south of Chicago, Columbus, DC or east of Texas . contributes mightily to this perception since the folding of the two Florida MLS clubs. MLS rectified their stupidity moving of the original san Jose Earthquakes to Houston by putting Four clubs in California and Northwest , Sounders(Wash. state) , New earthquakes(Santa Clara) Portland Ore. and Vancouver Canada. Obviously this leaves the northwest corner one quarter of the USA geographic region of the USA with clubs something the south east quarter of the USA does not have. That is why the TV ratings are so low. With no MLS club throughout the southern quarter of the USA since the Florida two MLs clubs folded southerners would rather watch NASCAR, baseball and College, NASL and USL pro clubs in soccer.

  33. Rob says:

    I’m glad you make mention of the pro refereeing. I don’t think it can be stressed enough. Far too many poor calls are made in MLS. It turns matches into a crapshoot of what the ref sees or doesn’t see, not a match decided on skill and goals. It’s infuriating to watch…. even when I’m a neutral observer.

  34. Rob says:

    #3 is weak. This isn’t England. Our country isn’t the size of Louisiana. There’s a reason we have an unbalanced schedule.

  35. Tony Butterworth says:

    Ultimately MLS’s biggest problem is that there are millions of soccer fans in the US and not that many of them are interested in watching MLS. It’s unfortunate but true.

  36. Shyvoodoo says:

    I dont know guys.. I want the MLS to succeed too but it just is missing a couple of things.
    For people who say European soccer and our soccer is different misses the point. IMO, The sport ITSELF is different in the way it crowns champions, thats why I would support a single table system even with no relegation. As i write this , this would be how a single table would look like:
    1. SKC 55 points
    2. Portland 53 points
    3. Red Bulls 53 points
    4. RSL 52 points
    5. LA Galaxy 51 points
    6. Seattle 51 points
    7. Montreal 49 points
    8. Houston 48 points
    9. Colorado 48 points

    There u have 9 teams within 7 points of each other that has a shot at winning the league.. The teams at the lower end of the table would play spoiler if they were playing these teams so there really is no such thing as a meaningless game..
    Second its just me, but please give the teams more control over their kit manufacturers a lot of the teams look the same, but with different colors. M just not a big fan of adidas OR the font on the back of the uniforms.. Looks very high schoolish.
    To the guy who said MLS draws more than the NBA?!? This makes absolutely NO SENSE AT ALL. Its like saying the Cowboys draw more then any NBA team.. They should, they are playing in a 80,000 seat stadium…

  37. steve says:

    Easy access to European matches will always hold back MLS growth. Its just better soccer.

    We have jobs, work 40/50 hrs a week, have family responsibilities, work to do about the house, work to do on the car, professional study, etc etc. My point is, time is a precious commodity. When I do get a slice of time to watch a game, I will spend it watching the best soccer available. Every now and again someone in MLS does something awesome, but its mostly either slow and ponderous or wretched defense. Why spend precious time watching an inferior game? If I can barely scratch out time to watch a Champions League game, MLS just isn’t on the radar.

  38. Anti Drums at Football says:

    I try and watch the MLS but find it hard. It’s nothing to do with the standard of play but the atmosphere. It sucks.

    Having some guy ‘conduct’ the crowd with a microphone and a drum is not a football atmosphere. It just goes on and on, regardless of what is happening on the pitch.

    0-5 mins we sing Song X. Then 6-10 mins we sing Sony Y etc etc.

    The other team score, we have a player sent off – the guy at the front doesn’t even notice and just thinks ‘oh never mind I’ll just bang my drum a bit louder as it’s time for Song ZZ in 30 seconds’.

    It’s not quite as bad as the vuvuzela’s of the last WC but not far off.

    • Dan says:

      Almost every single world soccer supporters section is just like this with the exception of England. You think Portland invented the Capo and the megaphone?

  39. SoCal Mike says:

    Simply put, unless and until ESPN starts hiring people that actually know the sport to host some of their shows and devote more than token plugs to upcoming MLS games they will cover during SportsCenter will ratings continue to flounder. They are that influential on average Joe American sports fans. It will be years however until either that happens or fans slowly gravitate to the sport based on the quality of the sport itself (it’s been mocked amongst mainstream sports media types – the same ones that don’t understand the sport for too long) or MLS starts bringing in the bigger players and quality of play improves.

    American sports fans are used to seeing the highest-quality players play in each of our domestic leagues, MLS arguably isn’t top-15 league in the world and we only get to see the top players during summer tours (Messi’s, Ronaldo’s, etc…)

    It’s an uphill battle too as American sporting fans already have different sports to follow, that isn’t the case in most other countries where soccer is THE sport.

    Slowly the league will improve, the quality of play and players, and slowly too will viewership numbers increase. But it won’t happen overnight or even likely not within Don Garber’s stated timeframe of having the MLS be one of the top leagues in the world.

    • KapUSMC says:

      ESPN is doing the part.. ESPNFC has a decent website / and pretty good show. Grantland (an ESPN property) has the the very good Men in Blazers podcast. Mainstream ESPN (PTI the best example) talk about soccer significantly more then they used to. This is a long uphill climb. MLS tried earlier on to grow to fast, and ended up contracting teams. They have a much better business model now, and things are constantly getting better. There will be another upcoming World Cup bump, and hopefully the USMNT does well. Another quarter finals appearance would do wonders.

  40. Red Dog says:

    Soccer is just BORING to Americans and it always will be. The only people who attend and watch these games are illegal aliens. The INS should go to these matches and bust 75% of the audience.

  41. KapUSMC says:

    I agree with everything from the shinguardian piece. But for the author… Not so much.

    1.) Quality – Yes, agree that its beneath the big four (EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga). But so is every other league in the world. But its not that far behind. For being a teenager, its not bad all. Top 10 – 15 in the world. And its getting better every year. LA with Keane and Donovan would be in the top 5 or so front lines in the EPL. LA was able to beat Juve and compete with Madrid and Milan in the ICC. And if you merely want to see the best period, skip the big 4 and watch the champions league. Quality there is truly the best in the world.

    2/3.) Relevance/Authenticity – Complete and utter nonsense. How is this different then any other league? So in a single table the wins at the beginning of the season have the same impact as in MLS. In fact, more meaningful games were played on the final match day in MLS then matchday 38 in EPL last season. Its not the EUROPEAN way. Sure. But that doesn’t make it wrong. You know Liga MX, the Brazilian and Argentina leagues all do some variation of split conferences / playoffs? Do you question these leagues authenticity? Geography comes in to play with larger countries, in addition to casual fans in the US desiring playoffs because that’s how every other sport in the US works. This is purely a “it’s wrong, because that’s not how England does it” point of view.

    There is a general self-loathing of many US soccer fans. There shouldn’t be. Just because the US hasn’t cared about soccer nearly as long as a lot of other places, doesn’t diminish what they are accomplishing. For the last 20 years, the USMNT success is almost identical to Englands (world cup performance / FIFA rankings / EHLO rankings). When the US and England were in the same group in the world cup, the US won the group. And if you believe Soccernomics the US will only open up distance ahead of England in the future. Personally I believe the US will win a world cup before England gets another.

    All in all, relax. No other country has as many competing professional leagues as the US. Its not going to beat out the NFL. Not next year, not 10 years from now. But the game in MLS is growing. Quality is improving, and it is a sustainable model.

    I will watch 4 MLS games this weekend. I got to watch a Serie A game and 2 EPL games. I’m thankful for the level of availbility of soccer in this country now, and I love that we have a domestic league that is contributing to the success of my national team. If you want to focus on negatives, thats cool… But I’m loving the state of soccer in this country and thankful that it finally feels like its on an steady upward climb.

  42. jlivuk says:

    I was recently in Kansas City on business and noticed a large number of Sporting KC/Chelsea/Man U/Arsenal signage around the offices of an important client. I’ve lived abroard in London for 5 years, so I found it curious. Very little Chiefs signage, which was very strange to me considering the Chiefs were still enjoying their amazing undefeated streak. I had to ask one of the employees of the client about this; he explained it in very simple terms for me:

    1. Soccer is more popular with under-40′s, and the offices I visited were full of Facebook-reared millenials who relate more to the sport and its international appeal. He said I would be more likely to find Chiefs signage and gear in other parts of the office campus where the older workers were located.

    2. MLS is very popular in metropolitan areas where the teams are located (local MLS ratings seem to tell a different story than the national broadcasters), but it has not taken off in the outskirts of Kansas City. MLS is a local phenomenon in Kansas City, but not so much in Springfield.

    Two lessons here:

    1. Give older potential fans a reason to watch.
    2. Give non-MLS city/rural residents a reason to watch.

    This is less to do with “quality of play” and more to do with savvy marketing. You can’t just throw matches on national televison and expect people to watch who are not invested in the narrative. Spectator sports are all context; the MLS leadership might have built a financially-solvent league, but they haven’t built a story.

  43. Dan says:

    I’ve been following MLS since its inception. I’m a Galaxy supporter.

    1. Balanced Schedule is a must. I love it when you have a home and away against every team.
    2. Flex TV scheduling is a must. Some of the games on TV towards the end of the season were embarrassing both in quality and support in the stands.
    3. Single Table.
    4. Fix the playoffs. Set the schedule when the regular schedule is announced. Less teams. Build it into season ticket prices that way you don’t need to worry about empty stadiums due to short turnaround.
    5. 18 years. This league is SO young. Fan Culture has finally come into its own. The first generation of fans to grow up with the league will start having families soon.
    6. The Premier League wasn’t always the Premier League. For anyone of you that traveled to England in the 90s you now see what 20 years can do. The stadiums were a scary place to be. The play was average and it was not the Global phenomenon it is now. So, be patient.

  44. dcudiplomat says:

    Single table no pro rel yes only integrated with current format. … mls needs to pattern after American League s not euros

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