MLS’ TV Problem: Discussing Possible Solutions


With news of the remarkable TV ratings the English Premier League has achieved on ESPN2 this past Saturday morning and Monday afternoon, comes the question again about MLS’ TV strategy and viability. Both games which were timed oddly for the US TV audience outdrew every MLS primetime telecast this season on ESPN2 that has not included the expansion Seattle Sounders.  This has also come without much advertising: I spoke to a prominent football watcher on Tuesday, who had missed Monday’s game because he thought it was on Setanta and he doesn’t subscribe to Setanta any longer.

The Monday match between Liverpool and Aston Villa was the most watched EPL match ever on US television. At the same time, MLS is averaging fewer viewers on TV than it did ten years ago.  I risk sounding like a broken record in this regard, but the problem is so serious, and something that many fans of MLS (and complicit press that covers MLS) doesn’t want to discuss, so it must be once again talked about here. But this time, we seek solutions rather than to just point out the obvious.

First, let’s outline the problem:

MLS TV ratings on ESPN 2 are about as bad as a primetime sporting event can possibly be on a mainstream channel. ESPN 2 in fact, has achieved higher average ratings in prime time for such sports as Poker and Bowling in the last year. However, those sports have limited upside potential when compared with Football.

That was the rationale for ESPN paying a rights fee for MLS in 2006 and continuing to place it in prime time on weeknights or Saturdays. However, now with the acquisition of certain EPL and La Liga matches, the Disney networks can promote the sport outside of international windows and tournaments without MLS.

Per a well placed industry source, MLS TV contracts are up for review every two years. After the first review of the eight year, multi million dollar contract between ESPN and MLS, games were dumped from the lucrative Thursday Night time slot, to different nights on the calendar.

MLS’ TV ratings continue to struggle despite being in several lucrative television markets. On Fox Soccer Channel, Premier League games averaged three times as many viewers last season as MLS matches even though the MLS games are in primetime and the EPL matches in less than ideal time slots. This year, ESPN is learning early on, what FSC found out last season about the TV ratings of MLS vs the EPL, despite the obvious and natural advantages MLS enjoys.

MLS should have higher TV ratings than the EPL or La Liga. Only the Mexican League should have more viewers on US TV. But despite being a domestic league, which you can actually watch in person as compared to matches taking place a continent away, MLS struggles to hold the attention of fans in markets with team in the league, not to mention the large markets without teams.

The Potential Outcome without Action

MLS is largely enabled by groups of fans that are uncritical when it comes to evaluating the league’s progress. Also, many media members feel they cannot criticize MLS for risk of the league suffering or disappearing. For example, last year MLS’ TV ratings were terrible, and those who bothered to look knew how badly the league was faring on ESPN2. But unlike other American sports writers, who routinely track Nielson ratings, many US soccer writers ignored the bad news.

In fact, in 2008 when I had editorialized about MLS’ poor TV ratings, I was told by multiple fans that my facts were wrong because none of the credible writers had written what I had. Those who wrote me insisted that the TV ratings were much higher, than I claimed. One email even said MLS averaged in excess of 500,000 viewers a night on ESPN2. This person must have lifted the viewership from ESPN’s package in the 1999 season.

It was then met with some shock in these same circles when ESPN pulled the plug on Thursday Night MLS. At that point, some mainstream reporters began investigating and writing about MLS’ TV ratings.

So, if no action is taken nor if MLS fans and supporting press do not acknowledge the continued failure of the league to garner even semi respectable TV ratings, the league will go the way of several domestic leagues in Asia and Latin America, where there is always a committed core of fans, but the majority of the football loving public breathes, lives and talks foreign club football.

We do not want that to happen here in America.

The Possible Solution

MLS has gotten off course. For every positive, including numerous soccer specific stadiums and expansion into good second tier markets, failures are apparent including media coverage in the top markets, and the inability to keep top American players. At the same time, MLS has dabbled with being a “big league,” by exporting high priced, and overage foreign stars.

MLS has to make a decision. Try and be a good American league, keeping the core of the national team player pool at home or be a global player by releasing the purse strings on clubs budgets and spending and allowing individual clubs to promote themselves outside their “assigned” market. (ie. Allow DC United to advertise on billboards in Dallas about Jamie Moreno, or even in South America, for example)

Right now, MLS is neither a good American league as the vast majority of US MNT pool players ply their trade abroad, nor a global player that has allowed clubs to build its own brand. MLS is a tweener league for lack of a better term. It is neither a league committed to developing nor promoting the American player, which would lead to one set of fans embracing it and promoting it, nor a bona-fide big league which would bring in even more fans.

As the interest in football has grown in the United States by leaps and bounds over the past ten years, MLS’ overall TV audience has actually shrunk. (Although attendance is way up over 10 years ago) Yet, many around the league and the game in general seem to be in denial about the reality regarding MLS and TV.

MLS officials and supportive fans need to concede that the ratings are nowhere near where they should be at this point in time and work to alleviate the situation. This will require structural changes to MLS as well as potential expansion into more TV friendly markets, as well as an honest effort to make the local team in the New York market as successful as possible.

I’m anxious to hear the ideas of our readers on this very important and under discussed issue.


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