TV ratings for the 2013 Major League Soccer regular season were down 29% on ESPN and 8% on NBCSN compared to last season. At the same time, the average attendance was down 1% across the league compared to last year, according to Sports Business Daily.
With declining TV viewing audiences, and MLS currently in negotiations with ESPN and NBC regarding the next cycle of TV rights to the league that expire next year, it’s time for MLS to decide whether TV ratings are a priority or not for the organization. If MLS is serious, the league needs to make wholesale changes to the way the league operates, to improve its QRA — quality, relevance and authenticity. Otherwise, the league will continue to be an unattractive property on US television where there are plenty of other choices for soccer fans in the United States.
ESPN’s average viewing audience for MLS dropped from 311,000 in 2012 to 220,000 this year.
NBC’s average, meanwhile, dropped from 132,000 to 112,000.
NBCSN’s President of Programming Jon Miller said:
“We have strongly urged MLS to consider a flex-scheduling concept. With good reason, MLS’s focus has been on attendance and getting local television deals. I think they know now that national television should be a priority. Hopefully, the league will work with the club owners to make something like flex scheduling a reality.”
While flex-scheduling will help, it’s only a band-aid, not a cure.
MLS currently doesn’t use flex-scheduling. Instead, the league decides which games will be shown on national television before the season even starts. With flex-scheduling, the league and TV networks can decide to show different games instead if there are new, more exciting story lines to feature or teams that are getting hot that should be televised.
Another concern is the way the current league season is set with the playoff games competing against much larger sporting properties or, in some cases, key games not even being shown nationwide on an English-language TV broadcaster. For example, Wednesday night’s MLS playoff games between New York-Houston and Sporting KC-New England weren’t available nationwide on an English-language TV station. And even if they were, MLS would have been competing against college football, the NBA and NHL.
If MLS had a season and playoffs that ended in the summer, the league could guarantee that they would broadcast sports when most of the traditional American sports are in their off-season, thereby increasing the TV viewing audience numbers.