MLS takes big hit in TV ratings; What the poor numbers indicate

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After MLS scored an excellent August with TV ratings far exceeding the norm, MLS viewing audiences this past weekend took a big hit.

Out of the two nationally games on English-language TV, the average viewing audience was 77,000 (63,000 for the Toronto-New England game on ESPN2, and 91,000 for Orlando-Sporting Kansas City on FOX Sports 1).

Both MLS games had a ratings share of 0.0.

In comparison to other TV viewing figures for soccer on Sunday, even a NBCSN documentary about Bournemouth on Sunday (2-3pm ET) had more viewers (92,000) than Orlando-KC. Sunderland-Spurs had 345,000 viewers (Sunday, 8:30-10:30am ET, NBCSN), Puebla-Santos 180,000 (Sunday, 6-8pm ET, Univision Deportes), and Pumas-Veracruz 122,000 (Sunday, 1-3pm ET, Univision Deportes).

The only positive for MLS is that the TV ratings weren’t as bad as the ones for both NWSL games on FOX Sports 1 this weekend (42,000 for Seattle Reign vs. Washington Spirit, and 28,000 for Chicago Red Stars vs. FC Kansas City).

So, what do the poor TV viewing figures tell us?

1. NFL has an impact, but can’t be used as an excuse. Many soccer fans and writers will write off this past weekend’s poor TV ratings as a result of the opening weekend of NFL. While there’s no doubt it had an impact, the overnight ratings share for NBCSN’s Leicester City against Aston Villa on Sunday was a 0.37 (with a viewing audience of 401,000). The game was televised from 11am-1pm ET. FOX’s NFL pregame show on Sunday began at Noon ET.

2. The “Giovani Dos Santos Effect.” One of the main reasons why MLS TV ratings did so well in August was because 2 of the 3 games with impressive viewing figures featured LA Galaxy, the in-form side in MLS that continues to add star signings to its team — making them a super club and more appealing to TV audiences, particularly those tuning in to watch new signing Giovani Dos Santos play. When LA Galaxy plays, that’s great for MLS but when US teams such as Orlando, Sporting Kansas City and New England are in action, the interest is negligible. Toronto, meanwhile, may be popular in Canada, but the team garners very little interest to soccer fans in the US.

3. MLS should focus its attention on Liga MX, not Europe. The poor ratings are a worrying sign for Major League Soccer and the broadcasters (FOX, ESPN, Univision) who have invested millions in MLS/US Soccer for 2015-2022. Instead of continuing to focus its attention on signing players from Europe and playing European sides in All-Star games, the league would be better served focusing its efforts on acquiring more talented players from south of the border. Dos Santos gave MLS an immediate ratings boost. There are plenty of other Liga MX and South American players who can add quality on the field and more people tuning in to watch games on TV.

4. MLS and the TV networks need to get outside of their bubble. A big reason why ratings are poor on FOX Sports 1 and ESPN is that there’s very little advertising to promote these games outside of the “MLS Soccer” bubble (namely the networks themselves and MLSsoccer.com). If you don’t watch FOX Sports 1 or ESPN on a regular basis, and you don’t visit MLSsoccer.com, you’re unlikely to see ads on TV or online promoting the games. FOX Sports, especially, likes to promote games within its own family of networks, but if you’re like most soccer fans who only tune into FOX Sports for live games such as the Champions League and infrequent USMNT games, you’re largely oblivious to what else they’re showing.

 

MLS and the TV networks have made positive strides this year to try to improve TV ratings. The league signed several DPs as well as scheduling consistent times when soccer fans know when to tune in for broadcasts (Friday nights for games on UniMas, Sunday afternoons on ESPN2 and Sunday evenings for FOX Sports 1). Plus, the quality of soccer on display as well as the exciting atmospheres in the newer soccer-specific stadiums have improved significantly.

While these moves are encouraging, it doesn’t change the biggest problem that MLS has — playing a season where 75% of the games (from April, after the buzz of a new season wears off, through September) are of little consequence given that 60% of the teams eventually qualify for the playoffs. A string of consecutive wins during the latter stages of the season can be enough to help a team qualify for the playoffs, making their several previous months of indifferent results largely irrelevant.

If the TV networks that have invested millions in this league want to see significant growth in viewing audiences, the only two plausible factors are (1) if the US wins the World Cup, which is unlikely given Jurgen Klinsmann’s current track record, or (2) dramatic changes are made to the way that the MLS competition is structured where the regular season becomes more relevant overnight.

When the millions of soccer fans in the United States are faced with deciding which games they’ll watch on any given Saturday or Sunday, they’re going to watch the ones that are most meaningful to them. It’s not that the overall number of soccer fans is small, but the number of choices they’re faced with are greater than ever before. More than 746,000 American residents watched the Premier League this past Sunday. Approximately 302,000 watched Liga MX. And 90,000 watched Serie A on beIN SPORTS.

Back to MLS, the league’s playoff format is very entertaining, but it’s far too little too late in a long season of forgettable games. Perhaps an apertura/clausura format of two half seasons with the winners meeting in a final could generate more interest? Or maybe there’s a way to offer a uniquely American solution that can remedy the problem? Whatever the outcome, promotion/relegation isn’t the answer for MLS.

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