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MLS unable to generate TV ratings boost from Women’s World Cup

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On a rare day last month when there were no Women’s World Cup or Copa America games played due to rest days in the tournaments, MLS had the perfect opportunity to ride the wave from the record Women’s World Cup and Copa America TV ratings and see a boost in its own viewing figures.

Unfortunately, they didn’t come.

Sunday, June 28th was a perfect gauge to see how well MLS viewing figures were doing. With this being a summer of soccer, and with MLS purposely scheduling Rivalry Week matches that would attract viewing audiences, the end result was disappointing. Neither Sunday’s Hudson River Derby between New York City FC-New York Red Bulls (on ESPN) nor the Cascadia Cup derby between Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders (on FOX Sports 1) moved the needle.

So, how did MLS do?

The broadcast of New York City against New York Red Bulls, which was moved from ESPN2 to ESPN, was viewed by 297,000 people between 4:30-7pm ET, while 371,000 watched Portland Timbers against Seattle Sounders from 7-9:30pm ET.

Surprisingly, the NYCFC-RBNY game failed to draw more viewers than, just as one example, the Stoke City versus Swansea game (302,000 viewers) that was shown on a Sunday morning last year on NBCSN. With ESPN in 12.8 million more homes than NBCSN, MLS TV viewing audiences must do better.

While FOX Sports 1’s 371,000 number was impressive by their own standards, one of the most high-profile games between Timbers and Sounders in the MLS calendar played during prime-time on a Sunday night should be generating greater viewing figures. While Timbers-Sounders was viewed by 371,000 people on Sunday prime-time, this was only 33,000 more than a game between QPR and West Ham on an October Sunday morning on NBCSN.

Are we really to believe that QPR and West Ham have more fans in the United States than Red Bulls or NYCFC?

Moving past Rivalry Week numbers, how did MLS TV viewing figures do on the weekend of the Women’s World Cup final when interest in the sport is the highest it has ever been in the history of soccer in the United States?

Friday’s game before the Women’s World Cup final between Houston and Chicago Fire on UniMas had 87,000 viewers, while Sunday’s late-game (just hours after USA’s win in the World Cup final) featuring Portland and San Jose garnered just 133,000 viewers (even though it was advertised prominently on ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage) .

Meanwhile, last Sunday’s entertaining 4-4 draw between Toronto FC and New York City FC — the teams with the highest and third highest salaries in the league respectively — drew a TV audience of 301,000 on ESPN. For a game on ESPN on a Sunday from 3-5pm ET, that isn’t good enough.

Obviously, there’s a problem here.

Some reporters that cover MLS zero in on the percentage viewer growth for MLS games on FOX Sports 1 compared to NBCSN as a way of spinning how the league’s TV numbers are good news. However, FOX Sports 1 is in 3.25 million more homes than NBCSN, and NBCSN’s numbers for MLS — as a whole — were dreadful. Given the amount of investment that FOX, Univision and ESPN have put into the league this year — as well as MLS’ new teams and Designated Players, NBCSN’s 2014 viewing figures should not be the barometer that 2015 TV viewing audiences are measured against.

SEE MOREMLS and TV networks need to make most of this second chance.

While the Women’s World Cup attracted more mainstream sports fans to the competition, it hasn’t translated into significantly more viewers of MLS games on FOX Sports, Univision or ESPN.

Record TV viewing audiences for soccer in the United States don’t guarantee that those new fans will gravitate to men’s soccer. However, it’s another missed opportunity for MLS. And whether you believe the Women’s World Cup should have given MLS a boost in TV ratings or not, the fact of the matter is that MLS TV ratings continue to disappoint.

With high-profile debuts for new Designated Players coming soon, MLS has a chance to crack the formula for how to deliver impressive ratings for its TV partners who have poured millions into the league. MLS has been given a second chance, but it needs to start making real progress soon.

 

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30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. erico

    July 21, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Interesting discussion. I’ve been wondering about the ratings, it was hilarious to read how terrible Unimas Friday night games were. The attrocious english commentary has to have something to do with that lol.

    I’m probably the dream demographic: I watch almost every EPL game (love being able to stream replays all week) and I try to watch as many MLS games as I can. But I do both for different reasons.

    EPL is consistently good, I have quite a few favorite teams and players, and mostly the coverage on NBCSN is pretty enjoyable. Enough happens each week that I just don’t want to miss out. And usually at least one game each weekend, if not several, is actually pretty great.

    MLS has the advantage of being played over multiple time zones so its possible to watch many games live (at least on pirate streams). That should make for hours of soccer heaven. Unfortunately, the quality is often so bad that I end up watching multiple games in a row just hoping for at least one decent game or even one decent half. Or one crazy last 10 minutes lol.

    I really dislike the ‘superstar’ on my local team and the times I’ve shelled out the money to attend live games the quality has been very disappointing, so not a risk I’m willing to take on a regular (season ticket) basis. But I do try to watch most of the games on tv and once in a while the team is almost as good as they think they are lol. This is one of the top teams in the league but I love them far less than I do mid table EPL teams that I watch from afar.

    The inconsistency and flaws of pretty much every single MLS team do also make for moments of excitement each game, which is entertainment, if not great soccer. With so many bad calls, penalties, red cards, kicking and bitching, MLS often does provide some drama worth a view lol.

    However the commentary is often so ridiculous in its boosterism compared to what I’m actually seeing on the field that any MLS game is really a mix of hating/mocking what I’m seeing and hearing with a few moments of actual soccer love. Sometimes the strain the commentators are trying to mask as they hype something unwatchable is excruciating. Now that MLS is on european channels, I often watch the pirate streams with their commentary, just for the reduction in hype.

    Every week its a bit of a struggle to decide whether or not to watch MLS or do something more productive. Soccer is pretty much the only sport I love, maybe that’s why I stick around even when it sucks. But I don’t think bringing in wily older retirees that get paid more than entire teams and talking them up constantly/hysterically is going to solve the MLS viewership problem.

  2. Kejsare

    July 20, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Wait! If the WWC cannot help two women’s professional soccer leagues survive how could it improve MLS’s TV ratings?

  3. Bryan

    July 20, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I don’t get it. Why would MLS expect a ratings boost from the Women’s World Cup ?

    • Christopher Harris

      July 20, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      …because FOX was promoting its MLS coverage during broadcasts of the games, because Don Garber took the platform to talk about MLS during the USWNT parade, because MLS is the most accessible league to viewers in this country who want to watch more soccer (at least, in the summer it is).

      • Kei

        July 20, 2015 at 10:06 pm

        Using the Women’s World Cup to shill MLS always seemed odd in the first place. That anyone expected people to buy it en masse is frankly the kind of stuff that coke dreams are made of.

        As it was, the overwhelming majority of the potential viewing audience didn’t buy the spiel from Fox and the Don, during and after the tournament. What does that say? Hell of a lot more about the product they were shilling — and whatever they did that passed as a “sales pitch” — than it does about the millions of people who rejected it.

  4. Frill Artist

    July 20, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Let’s be for real. Nobody even cares about the women’s world cup. It barely got any comments here. Lmfao.

  5. CTBlues

    July 20, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Gaffer you picked the wrong body of water it’s the Hudson River Rivalry. The East River separates the Bronx and Manhattan from Long Island.

  6. Tony

    July 20, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Christopher, maybe a more relevant comparison would be comparing MLS ratings to those for the International Champions Cup games coming up? It will be interesting to see how Man United vs Barcelona rates vs the average MLS or even Premier League game.

    • Realest Realist

      July 20, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      Saturday afternoon game on Fox between two clubs that count the most fans in the US — it wouldn’t shock me if the viewership number was in excess of one million.

  7. Kei

    July 20, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Yeah… probably because the idea that MLS could see a TV ratings boost from the rousing success of the USWNT is prima facie absurd.

    Even most MLS fans could care less what two sides are playing televised matches on any given weekend if they don’t involve their own teams. What’s the point?

  8. Anthony

    July 20, 2015 at 11:11 am

    The MLS is up against a lot of competition. Not just from other sports, but other soccer leagues and tournaments as well. The USMNT has drawn over a million viewers in each of their games so far in the gold cup. International soccer is much more popular than Club soccer in the US. If you have a choice to watch a MLS game or a USMNT game, many people would choose the USMNT. Even the US under 20 games had 300 k viewers at 2 and 3 in the am EDT. International soccer has gained popularity, but club soccer still lags behind

  9. Anthony

    July 20, 2015 at 10:36 am

    The expectation that *women’s* World Cup soccer is going to give some huge boost to MLS is a pretty silly concept.

    The USWNT is the very best at what they do. and not for just a short period of time, but for almost 3 decades.

    In addition they are the national team. There a no negative boundaries inside this country to effect ratings.

    But it just gets worse for MLS. Having this much soccer in such a short period of time can’t help. It’s just an overload for an average person.

    Hopefully MLS isn’t measuring themselves against other soccer products because they are nothing like those other products.

    Meanwhile those numbers are good. It makes no sense to compare oranges to apples. The only thing in common is they are the same sport. But you want to compare international soccer, soccer with different genders and soccer from the biggest soccer league in the world.

  10. toby

    July 20, 2015 at 9:01 am

    Why are people surprised by this? US soccer fans are very knowledgeable and know domestic soccer is not elite soccer and prefer foreign soccer. The EPL gets 5 times the viewers in the USA than the MLS. There was a list of the most popular soccer teams in the USA and not a single MLS team makes the top ten.

    Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have a combined total 20 million US fans.

  11. Kobashi

    July 20, 2015 at 8:09 am

    There is just no build during the week in between games for MLS by their media partners. From 2002 to 2012 fans of the Premier League got an hour of Sky Sports News and an hour of the FOX Soccer Report that hammered home all the EPL news and storylines for all of the clubs in the top flight. In that same timeframe we haven’t had anything like that with MLS. Until FOX or ESPN fall on the sword and start covering MLS on a day to day basis on all of their different TV/Radio shows like they do with their other sports properties casual soccer fans just won’t flock in numbers to MLS games nationally.

    One idea I have is that ESPN expands ESPN FC to an hour from 6p to 7p on ESPN NEWS and does a 30 minute newscast that covers the top international stories and includes news from around MLS and then a 30 minute roundtable talking the top stories of the day.

    Also if ESPN does end up offering all of the out of market Saturday games on ESPN3/Watch ESPN I’d do a studio show from the start of the games Saturday afternoon till the games end on Saturday Night.

    The MLS won’t take off in this country until their media partners start covering the league more regularly on their various platforms.

  12. Chris

    July 19, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    If I could watch MLS games on broadcast or streaming, I’d totally do it!

    But between blackouts and ridiculously expensive espn cable plans..

    Why is espn expensive? Basketball and NFL. Who wants to watch those? We need a internet-only soccer channel without a bunch of restrictions.

    • Kei

      July 20, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      “Basketball and NFL. Who wants to watch those?”

      Dude, a typical NBA game gets at least 3-4 times the viewership that an average ESPN2 game gets… to say nothing of however many times that a typical Monday Night game gets.

      Fans tend to flock to programs where the quality and production values are better. Basketball and football offers this. Hell, ESPN used to offer it back when they had EPL and UCL coverage on their books. It doesn’t now, though.

    • toryblue

      July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am

      who wants to watch basketball and the NFL? Americans do. know what they don’t want to watch? MLS. so stop with the snippiness and acknowledge the reality of the situation.

  13. Chris

    July 19, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    I am a huge fan of my one particular MLS team. So much in fact I will never miss watching a home/away game on TV… but for some reason, when two other MLS teams are playing eachother, it doesn’t matter how many ads I see on TV, I really could care less.

    I believe a lot of the attitude has to do with the way the league is set up. For instance, my favorite MLS team is in the western conference, so when two eastern conference teams play each other, the result has substantially less impact on my own team since my team is not “directly competing” with eastern teams. Why should I really care about eastern table results especially for the first 3/4 of the season anyway. Hence why I never became pumped up over the so called big New York rivalry.

    Secondly, the fact that nearly half of teams in the east and the west make the playoffs creates even more laze-fare notions in my viewing preference… There is less feeling of urgency in wanting to watch many MLS games when I know the result of the match will have significantly less of an impact than say the EPL where every team is directly competing against eachother and finishing 1st or 2nd in the league matters, finishing 4th or 5th matters for other European tournaments and finishing 3rd from bottom or 4th from bottom matter. These factors are just not present in MLS and I believe it really hurts viewership, especially when we can watch other leagues on the same tv networks that are set up this way. Certainly creates more excitement when more is on the line when playing a match.

    • CTBlues

      July 20, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      MLS owners don’t want anything to be on the line they want to have their cake and eat it too.

  14. Tony

    July 19, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    If MLS/ESPN/Fox knew how to property market MLS, here what they would have done:

    Steven Gerrard made his debut with LA on Friday night. The game should have been televised on a Fox or ESPN network. Fox or ESPN studio shows should have made a big deal about the Steven Gerrard debut and explained why it is important. This could have increased ratings. But ESPN/Fox seem incapable of this kind of promotion when it comes to MLS. In fact, ESPN promotes La Liga, EPL, Women’s World Cup and everything else much better on Sportscenter.

    • Jeff

      July 19, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      Pretty sure neither FOX or ESPN could have broadcast the game since Univision had it as their exclusive Friday night game.

      Despite that, you’re absolutely right. Yes there’s been more ads for ‘MLS Soccer Sunday’ on both FS1 & ESPN but there hasn’t been the same increase in promotional efforts around the league which is needed to increase casual interest

  15. Tony

    July 19, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    MLS is simply a local product at this point. Soccer fans in the MLS markets know about the product and attend the games. The atmospheres at all the games seem lively. But casual fans simply are not aware of what games or on any given week, what time the games are on, what the stakes are for any given game, which players are involved, etc.

    About your question on whether there are more QPR fans vs the Timbers, I would guess that there are more fans of European Soccer as a whole than there are MLS fans in the US. European soccer fans will watch Premier League regardless. A ManU or Liverpool fan will watch Swansea or Bournemouth or whoever if that’s whats on TV. A “fan” of NYCFC probably isn’t going to seek out other MLS games.

    • Anthony

      July 20, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      The EPL benefits from being aired on Saturday and Sunday Mornings throughout the fall, winter, and spring months when many people are home. It is easy to watch an EPL match in the am and still have a productive day. A 3:00 pm EDT game during a Sunday in July in is a horrible time slot and I’m surprised the number of viewers for NYC FC/Toronto FC even reached 300 K.The ESPN 2 time slot 5:00 pm EDT 2:00 pm PDT in the the summer is a horrible time slot nationally as well. The league is still young and making a name for itself with its great attendance numbers and more recognizable names in the sport choosing to play here

      • Christopher Harris

        July 20, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        I’m so sick of hearing excuses.

        There’s very little competition for MLS on TV during primetime weekend slots during the summer. MLS needs to be generating larger viewing audiences than they are. It’s simply not good enough.

        • Tim

          July 21, 2015 at 7:25 am

          I agree the excuses are getting old when there is a time slot on Sundays where you know week in and out when and where to tune in. My question is what are we camparing? MLS to EPL, Liga MX, etc? Or MLS to other American sports leagues? Yes other sports leagues in the US blow soccer away most of time. But if you’re comparing MLS to EPL and Liga MX(the most watched league in the US), how far off are they? Seems to me that only the big EPL games draw around a million viewers which MLS would love to have but is it really that far apart all the time?

  16. francis

    July 19, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    The EPL has a solid core of fans in the US who will tune in every week regardless of the fixture, so even the weakest of matchups can outdraw MLS. Teams like Salt lake, KC, Portland etc are doing very well on the local level but have no national appeal

  17. Pakapala

    July 19, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Another thing to consider is that fans of EPL clubs and of the league in general in the US have no other option but to watch the games on TV/online. Fans of the MLS clubs/league have the option of watching on TV versus go to the game in person. That would always make it hard to really just use TV numbers as a way to tell how well MLS are doing in the US.

    • Flyvanescence

      July 19, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      So we should go by MLS’ fake attendance numbers instead? 😀

      (That being said i go to games but never watch it on tv)

  18. Pakapala

    July 19, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    “Are we really to believe that QPR and West Ham have more fans in the United States than Red Bulls or NYCFC?”

    Of course not! That would be like saying a NFL game ratings is indicative of the number of fans of the 2 teams playing. While that is probably the case when talking about stadium attendance numbers there’s no way we can make the correlation between TV audience and fans of the teams. What we have is the fact that EPL, just like NFL, do a very good job of selling the whole league as 1 viewing event rather than just a few clubs here and there. MLS still seems to be stuck between trying to do just that and trying to push big market/big pocket teams.

  19. Bo

    July 19, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    “Are we really to believe that QPR have more fans in the United States than Red Bulls or NYCFC?”

    Darn god I hope not, those poor people.

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