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.
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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