Major League Soccer has been touting a TV ratings increase this season on ESPN and FOX platforms as the league breaks for its annual MLS All-Star Game. The ratings have gone up, and that is good news for soccer in America. But a quick peek behind the ratings indicates the league got a boost from the international “summer of soccer.” Plus there was a boost due to the commitment of ESPN to show most MLS telecasts this season on the primary ESPN channel.
Leading up to the 2016 MLS All-Star Game, this year’s Major League Soccer matches on ESPN and ESPN2 have delivered an average audience of 312,000 viewers (227,000 household impressions), an increase of 32 percent in viewers (235,000) and 44 percent in television homes (158,000) from the same period in 2015.
Of note this season, start times on ESPN and ESPN2 have been less consistent than last season, where a fixed 5pm ET/2pm PT Sunday time slot was used for most games. This season, the ESPN schedule has been more fluid and in fact the two-highest rated matches of the season for the network came on Saturday’s in the build-up to massive finals in Copa America and Euro 2016 being played the next day. Those two matches also featured arguably the flagship teams of MLS – Seattle and Los Angeles.
FOX’s number have boosted up to approximately 284,000 per match from fewer than 200,000 a year ago (representing a 44% percent increase).
On the surface that’s good news but perhaps it isn’t. FOX Sports’ ratings took a tumble last year when NFL season began and when forced to compete with special events such as the US Open Tennis final. FOX didn’t get the MLS ratings bump from airing the Copa America that perhaps it should have. And most importantly, FOX Sports has begun airing games on the over-the-air FOX channel with little meaningful competition and yet still hasn’t recorded great numbers (last weekend’s Hudson River derby between New York Red Bulls and New York City FC was watched by just 558,000 viewers).
MLS’s ratings improvement is a positive development though given the total outlay of $720 million by FOX Sports, Univision and ESPN for the TV rights for the 2015-2022 period, the ratings remain underwhelming. MLS’ hope that a consistent date and time would boost ratings substantially has given way once again to pegging MLS broadcasts to bigger soccer events and hoping for a ratings surge when other sports and soccer leagues aren’t directly competing for viewers.
For MLS to continue to grow its footprint, matches seem to require being hitched to larger events and featuring teams whose following transcends local markets. But beyond Seattle and Los Angeles, do any MLS clubs fit this description?
In the next round of player signings, the league might want to consider ways to raise the profile of big market clubs who can help move the television needle. The lowest rated match on any FOX Sports network this season was a July 17 matchup on FS1 between New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia – the #1 versus #4 TV markets in the nation. Perhaps the timing of the match wasn’t ideal right after the conclusion of the Euro 2016 tournament and before the kickoff of the International Champions Cup. But still the viewership, which was only slightly above 100,000, was incredibly disappointing.
Overall, MLS’ TV footprint and ratings are growing – but they still lag behind the overall interest and growth in soccer throughout the United States. MLS’ TV profile is a work in progress and as those of us who have kept track of these numbers for years can tell you, any positive baby steps are welcome.