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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