In the more than 20 years since MLS soccer debuted on TV in 1996, the league has seen its share of highs and lows in viewing audiences. While recent years have been marked by a distinct upward trend in viewership, glance at this season’s numbers and you might notice a slight dip compared to 2016. But is this necessarily a bad thing or even provoke cause for concern? It’s too early to say, but one thing is sure: although the final tallies won’t be in until the MLS season concludes in October 2017, broadcast networks and their advertising partners are banking on strong viewership and ratings now.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the bulk of the MLS season runs through the summer months, a crowded and highly competitive time for marquee sporting events. From MLB baseball to the irresistible spread of odds at the British Open, MLS must work hard to find an audience.
The opening game of the 2017 MLS season took place on March 3rd between the Portland Timbers (a new addition to MLS this year) and Minnesota United. Broadcast by Fox Sports, the match earned an audience of 235,000 viewers. That figure is a bit less than the average of 292,365 viewers who watched each televised game across all broadcasting networks in 2016.
The season may not have started with the expected bang, but there are some good reasons, upon further inspection. The unusual Friday night time slot (MLS is normally shown on Sunday afternoons) bumped up against televised college and NBA basketball games featuring teams heading into the playoff stretch.
When a larger scale is considered, the first month of the season captured an average of 261,667 viewers per game across networks. Fifteen games were broadcast during this span compared to 11 games over the same period in 2016, an uptick indicating a growing reach and exposure for MLS in North America. However, average per-game viewership was about 8% higher last season with a headcount of 284,842 tuning in.
The network with the biggest decline appears to be Univision, which lost around 25% of its viewers in the past 12 months. The Spanish-speaking network had averaged 303,750 viewers for the first 8 matches it broadcast in 2016. The same timeframe this year reflects a dramatic loss of audience, as an average of only 226,167 viewers caught the first 6 games shown on Univision. This decline seems to be the sore spot in the broader viewership trend and doesn’t reflect the performance of other broadcasters.
In fact, ESPN and Fox Sports have both experienced viewership increases over the first few months of 2017, with ESPN up a massive 29% and Fox Sports up slightly at 5%. However, this doesn’t mean that MLS is going head-to-head with foreign league soccer. For instance, European teams that have a relatively small following in the US are able to pull higher viewing figures in general than the most popular MLS clubs.
There’s a ways to go before MLS can contend with the likes of the Premier League – however, most broadcast networks are definitely headed in the right direction.