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MLS TV Ratings Down 29% On ESPN, 8% On NBCSN

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.

Read: Is now the time for promotion and relegation between MLS, NASL and USL Pro?

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.

MLS needs to decide whether to keep the status quo or to change the league into a more attractive TV property. The ball is in their court.

Editor’s note: For more news, analysis and opinion about MLS, visit our Major League Soccer page.

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  1. F19

    November 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    MLS is completely irrelevant on a national level. For the most part, nobody outside of the markets playing in a given game will care about that game. National TV success is a dream for MLS, nowhere near a reality.

    Which makes it puzzling why they are chasing big TV markets like NYCFC, Miami and Atlanta when there is slim to no demand for new teams in those markets. National ratings aren’t going to suddenly explode because you have those markets in the league. Only the handful of die hard supporters in those towns will watch the games. It doesn’t make any sense to be going after places like that when you could have “less sexy” locales like San Antonio, Detroit, St. Louis etc. that would draw packed stadiums and do well in their markets.

    • rory

      November 8, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      The USA situation is unique among major nations in that soccer is competing against FOUR established pro leagues, plus the colleges and NASCAR. Only Australia has similar issue (with Aussie Rules, Rugby & cricket). Moving the calendar probably won’t make a whole lot of difference in the viewership. It’s always going to be a struggle for MLS, but the national team does seem to capture the public imagination when it does well

      • john marzan

        November 8, 2013 at 11:58 pm

        MLS’ fate depends on the USMNT’s showing at the world cup in 2014 and 2018.

  2. Matt

    November 8, 2013 at 9:56 am

    For the MLS I only watch the NY Red Bulls and select playoff matches, and I assume that’s how majority fans are when it comes to the MLS if they are interested (watch your local team and playoffs). I really have little interest in many of the national games they show unless it involves my team.

    It also doesn’t help that the MLS is force feeding these west coast teams and games start at 10-11 PM on the east coast. MLS is basically on the Seattle/Portland/LA bandwagon for most of the season but it alienates east coast viewership. I would love to see what the NYC, Boston, Philly (etc..) rating is for a POR/SEA match starting at 11:30

  3. Marc L

    November 8, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I hope nobody ended up tackling that Seattle GK for a safety.

  4. SoccerFan

    November 8, 2013 at 8:54 am

    What do people think about ditching the salary cap?

    I think it *might* help. It would depend if any mega-rich people decided to take over an MLS team and really go for it.

    Say Chicago Fire were taken over by oil sheikhs who wanted to see top players playing in front of them every week.

    Money talks. Soon you’d have the best players in the world claiming that they’ve ‘always wanted to play in the USA and Chicago is the best city in the world’.

    If the best players started to come here (and they would if the salary was right) then the MLS would suddenly draw world wide attention.

    Although slightly un-realistic I think this is more feasible than the whole re-structuring of US soccer.

    What is the dialing code for Saudi Arabia?

    • Marc L

      November 8, 2013 at 9:51 am

      They did try that model to some extent with the NASL in the 70’s. Pele being brought in and whatnot.

      Ended up not working, of course. But obviously that was quite a long time ago and the sport as a whole is much more popular in the US than it was then.

      If it were me, I’d merely do something to make the “regular season” actually meaningful. You could even do something unconventional, like make the whole league a Champions League-style tournament every year with group stages and the like.

      As it is, the entire NHL/NBA style playoff structure is my own dealbreaker. The quality of play is not as big of a deal as is the fact that there is nothing really to care about.

      If you like football and are in the US it is the only thing on in the evening on English-language TV. Thus, if they could give me a reason to watch it I actually would. Particularly when I am detoxing during the summer months.

    • EPLNFL

      November 8, 2013 at 9:55 am

      I could only hope the Chicago Fire was taken over by oil money.

      Salary caps are here to stay. The old world leagues have not caught up with things yet.

    • Dean Stell

      November 8, 2013 at 10:44 am

      I think the only problem is that the oligarchs look at sports teams the same way they look at having huge harems of women or racehorses or Ferraris. It’s just a prestigious toy. Winning the Premier League trophy or Champion’s League has a lot of emotional gratification for those guys. Winning MLS Cup isn’t as cool so they won’t be as willing to spend the money.

      But, that can change over time… can’t catch up in 20 years.

  5. Dean Stell

    November 8, 2013 at 8:47 am

    This really isn’t surprising. It doesn’t mean that MLS sucks or can’t be a successful soccer league, but I’m sure it’s just that (a) soccer fans in the US are saturated with better leagues and (b) the games are on during crummy viewing times. No other sport that cares about TV viewership plays most of its games on Saturday night. That’s a great night to GO TO THE GAME, but not a great time for people to watch on TV because they’re doing other stuff.

    I really wish that MLS would just embrace the local flavor that they’ve worked hard to build. National TV may come someday, but the cards are really stacked against them right now.

    In a way, what hurts MLS is the same thing that makes life hard to American manufacturing workers: imports. The only way to compete is to make your value equal to the imports OR to enact legislation to keep the imports out. MLS won’t compete on TV as long as better leagues have better TV availability. If EPL had one game per week, MLS would have a chance on TV, but every EPL game is on one spot at predictable times. There’s never a weird Sunday night game on a Spanish language channel.

    Again, I think MLS is going to be fine. They’re just trying to fly when they don’t really have walking nailed.


    November 8, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Have to agree that a flex schedule is just one step necessary to increase ratings. Also having large tv attractive teams in the east and Midwest will help ratings.

    While the hard core MLS fan will enjoy the late night match ups from the west coast they never will show a large audience nationwide just because of sleep schedules alone.

    Having midweek games in the summer when there is little else to watch would be a factor that will help in my view. Also making US summer holidays “special fixture” days may help. As the holiday season in the UK is special for the EPL, MLS should make summer holiday weekend events big events, local rivals on the 4th of July and big nationwide match ups on Labor Day weekend work and may be Thursday and Monday matches for Memorial Day.

    Hey there are plenty of things to try and what’s good is that NBC at least wants to work with MLS. Chris it’s my understanding that since NBC started with the EPL the MLS ratings are up for that time period?

  7. SoccerFan

    November 8, 2013 at 8:32 am

    There’s been quite a few similar-ish articles on this website recently.

    Do you know something we don’t?

    Are talks being held for real about restructuring soccer in the US to try and increase it’s popularity?

  8. Peter Quinn

    November 8, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I don’t consider myself a “fan” of the MLS, but I do make an effort to watch their matches. I have to say that I’ve found it hard to track down when the matches are and what channel they are on.

    • James

      November 18, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Why is NBC wasting money on soccer?
      The fact is Soccer needs a overhaul

      And get”With the Times”if they want
      to compete against MLB,NBA,NFL

      You need to tailor to Americans and not how”Illegal Juans”watch soccer
      How do Americans’ watch sports?
      -Show replays of injuries,calls
      -Break in and show Updates of other
      -Eliminate ties
      -Thrilling wins ie:on free kicks,
      last sec.goals

      Tailor how they show games to Americans and not”Illegal Mexihoe”
      loss tradition to make it big in USA
      Otherwise,it don’t matter who’s playing,the day,time,won’t be big
      in the USA
      Maybe,unless the women play naked

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