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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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40 Comments

40 Comments

  1. Chris Red Bulls

    November 9, 2015 at 1:54 am

    One thing you don’t mention in the article is that the premier league matches are readily available thanks to a deal made with NBC. They don’t cost the viewer any extra monthly expenses. In order to catch most MLS Games a person has to have an expanded version of basic cable to view ESPN or Fox sports 1. This costs money. Having felt screwed over the years by cable companies I’ve gone completely off the grid except for optimum internet and the basic minimal cable. The only reason I watch that is because of the few MLS games that were broadcast early in the season and for the premier league games. Having missed the entire second half of the season because, “blackouts may apply” will incline me not to re subscribe to mls live. Waste of money because when ever espn deems it an important match, guess what, the black out applys. As a soccer fan I can tell you it’s a real drag wanting to watch and not being able to find an affordable solution. Many of my friends share my frustration. MLS long term plan should be to cut ties with the establishment and create it’s own network, make a deal with cable providers individually. Until then ESPN and fox sports 1 will continue to stifle the growth by exploiting the fans. I will not not put more money in the cable providers pocket on principal. MLS will have figure it out if they want to grow.

    • Chris Red Bulls

      November 9, 2015 at 2:01 am

      I should mention that I would pay for mls live if I knew I was going to get what ever match I wanted. The fact that that subscription is available is great, the fact that fox sports1 and ESPN made it unaffective is troubling at best. You should not have to pay for 3 dfferent extras on your cable bill to watch your home team play. It’s totally insane. Fox sports extra, ESPN, and MLS Live? smh retarded.

  2. Buck

    September 20, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    As someone who only watches the World Cup and us men’s team. I would only watch if the best players in the world played here and it didn’t go against college or nfl football. I will watch euro champ next summer and copa America I’m only interested in national soccer teams. One of those Americans who watches Olympics but not those sports in it on regular basis

  3. R.O

    September 19, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    Why are the ratings poor? Simple – MLS sucks. I was a big fan and supporter of MLS from it’s start till about 2005. I would still love the league to succeed but the game play, quality of play and players is worse than the first 6 yrs of the league. Sloppy play, harsh and clumsy fouls, chaotic play, poor game flow (bad passing, players have poor touch control, etc, etc).

    Quite frankly the play and player quality reflects why the US Nat team has slipped. The 1994 US Men’s team quality (players and game) was far better then today’s US Men’s team and there was no MLS at that time.

    If MLS wants to make improvements, stop importing players from leagues that are even worse then MLS, implement a Baseball style minor league system for players out of college or drafted players, and mandate that all College (and HS) coaches have to be licensed like other country coaches.

    The other thing about MLS, who the heck in the league thought it was a good idea not to show any evening games on Saturday? Also no weekly highlight show on a regular Cable channel or broadcast channel.

    While I’ve always been a Bundesliga fan and supporter (going back to the late 1960’s) I also followed the old NASAL and went to games. Attended MLS games from the founding year till 2005 (when MLS yanked the Quakes out of SJ – Scam). I’ve tried watching MLS on TV in the last few years, I can only take about 15 minutes. Quality or play and players is subpar (poor!). If Garber thinks MLS will be ranked as good as top leagues in the world by 2020 (?), at this rate he is delusional.

    The entire system needs to be reworked (top to bottom), Garber sent packing and get someone in their who has a soccer background (not from NFL background).

  4. Jason

    September 18, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    Well i for one subscribe to MLS Live. So I don’t have a cable tv. I guess I don’t count

  5. Tom

    September 17, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    The NBA and NHL avoid scheduling nationally-televised weekend games until after NFL/CFB season ends. MLB is lucky they only have to deal with regular season football in September and October, but that also means the MLB Postseason gets killed in the ratings on Saturdays and Sundays. If those leagues are reluctant to schedule against football, it would be ratings suicide for MLS to attempt to do so.

  6. The Money Team

    September 17, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    One thing that the old NASL got right during the late 1970s:

    Soccer Bowl was held on Labor Day Monday afternoon, live on ABC.

    MLS has NO CHANCE of getting any attention from the media or the casual TV viewers once NFL and (American) College Football are in full swing.

    “The Money Team” recommends the following:

    1. The MLS Cup playoffs should be held in AUGUST, with the MLS Cup Final to be held no later than Labor Day Monday (first Monday in September), 3 days before the start of the NFL season.

    2. Split the MLS regular season into Fall and Spring, with divisional play in the Fall (2 divisions of 12 or 3 divisions of 8, to minimize travel expenses) and a single-table season in the Spring (i.e. 23 matches for a 24-team league.)

    3. Award automatic “wild card” spots into the MLS Cup Playoffs for division winners in the short Fall season. Should these teams not finish in the”Top 8″ during the Spring season, they will play in wild card games.

    4. The top 8 teams from the Spring season will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, with teams finishing 8th, 7th, (and possibly 6th) having to play “wild card” games to reach the quarterfinal round.

    Forget about all that promotion/relegation “noise”.

    Major League Soccer (MLS) is ultimately a “commercial real estate” business disguised as sports entertainment. The “real estate” guys running MLS should know how to position its “real estate” for maximum value and media exposure.

  7. Javier

    September 17, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    While I enjoy MLS, if it’s in competition with the NFL, there’s no chance I’m watching it. However, this would go the same if the Premier League or Bundesliga was in conflict as well. The only chance I would watch a soccer match over the NFL is if was a MLS Cup final as I watched last season.

  8. Chad

    September 17, 2015 at 11:42 am

    if youre trying to promote the league, and build ratings in this very large country, i dont see how pro/rel will help. having chattanooga bring its fans in terms of viewers will only cause a blip in the ratings. pro/rel is a flawed system that europe is trying to do away with. there is no way to build a fanbase for the teams if the high profile teams get relegated and some small town team gets promoted. you’re only going to benefit the big city clubs, which by the way there are plenty of. what happens to the league when there are 4 NY/LA teams? then everyone else? these same pro/rel fanboys will come on here talking about how the league isn’t evenly spread out and that it was a bad idea, and that you need to set restrictions on how many teams a city can field, which opens a new can of worms. you pro/rel fanboys need to look at that map and start counting the cities in the US and tell me a small town clubs can honestly have a chance at making it to division 1.

  9. toryblue

    September 17, 2015 at 7:36 am

    well well. who could have ever imagined that the august numbers were a mirage? oh wait. once again, people see a blip of growth in the ratings from MLS and then rush to declare its arrival on the american sports landscape, only to see that it is, indeed, just a blip. the ratings for MLS nationally are non-existent. and they are non-existent locally, too. the only hope for MLS is to truly develop local, American talent, and lots of it, instead of importing aging international superstars looking for one last paycheck in the hopes that overseas audiences will watch MLS to make up for the complete lack of domestic attention. since that will never happen, the MLS has no hope.

  10. NaBUru38

    September 16, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    The article mentions television ratings of national broadcasts. But what about local ratings?

    MLB is famous because national ratings on most cable networks are fairly low, but local ratings are monstrous. If you add them, you get thst baseball is very popular.

  11. Antoine Trotter

    September 16, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Think what the ratings indicate is that the MLS does have some of the crossover fans they are looking for but when those fans have their sport of choice available, NFL, they will tune into those games. It must also be noted that while MLS may “good” support in MLS cities, the support outside of those cities may take a dip when other sports begin their seasons. Just food for thought. I did not read all the responses in this section so if the points were previously mentioned, you can disregard. Thank you.

    • Kei

      September 16, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      Crossover of fandom affects every city to varying degrees, though teams in towns with fewer teams tend to fare better. Even then, Orlando City just drew their lowest league crowd of the season for a Sunday night game. (Well, Kaka was out with an injury, but still…)

      Ultimately though, as Chris alluded to in the piece, a lot of it may have to do with the fact that fans tend not to give a f— about MLS games that don’t feature their own teams.

  12. Juan

    September 16, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Think the NFL and “saturation” is an excuse as is the Americanization of MLS. The highest-rated league in the US has a playoff system and that final is always amongst the highest-rated matches of the year on television regardless of language. Liga MX draws a million viewers consistently regardless of the NFL playing or not. So on both counts a lame excuse.

  13. David

    September 16, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Another big factor that wasn’t mentioned is college football started. That, along with the start of the NFL season a week later I’m sure had a sizable impact on the ratings. In the big picture, I think MLS is really poorly promoted. Without looking up the schedule, I rarely see games being promoted on tv so I never know when they are on.

  14. Kei

    September 16, 2015 at 11:42 am

    August numbers were but a mirage, helped in part by the fact that most games featured newly signed local heroes and former icons, and the fact that ESPN put some games on their man channel, as opposed to the Deuce. The new car smell has already began to fade, and reality has gradually set in.

    There was a post previously about MLS needing to build a presence outside of the existing markets, but if the numbers from Orlando-SKC game are anything to go by, it might not have that much of a presence in local markets, either.

    Orlando: Bucs game at 4pm was not televised (closest NFL team)
    Kansas City: Chiefs game long over by 6pm local time (high noon KO in Houston)

    I don’t know what the league would consider a success from the ratings standpoint, but drawing five-figure numbers at the start of the playoff push isn’t really a good look, is it?

  15. Tony

    September 16, 2015 at 10:28 am

    1) Bizarre that these debates always end up in promotion / relegation. I don’t think that has anything to do with ratings at this point

    2) NFL had an impact. Even Premier League games had lower ratings this week due to the excitement of the NFL opening week. Soccer matches will find better footing in upcoming weeks. Also ESPN and Fox were promoting NFL all week, not Toronto vs New England.

    The ratings were good in August because nothing else was on and ESPN televised and promoted the games. I remember most bars were televising that Galaxy game with Gio debuting in NYC simply because it was on. Now NFL is on.

  16. Joel

    September 16, 2015 at 10:24 am

    MLS should consider separating the league and the playoffs. Have a regular season with a recognized champion (supporters shield). Then a separate post season tournament with all teams, similar to the league or FA Cup in England, but with just MLS teams condensed into a month like the World Cup.

    • NaBUru38

      September 16, 2015 at 7:30 pm

      In Spanish basketball, the Copa del Rey is held before regular season. That could be an option.

      With home and away brackets, it’s 9 or 10 rounds. It could be held in March and early April.

  17. Izie077

    September 16, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Whats the positive for MLS? 20 yrs old league vs NWSL a 3 yrs old women’s league with 30k max salary which is doubled by the MINIMUM salary in MLS. The positive is for NWSL coming up against NFL opening Sunday and still getting better viewership than Most Bundesliga Matches that Fox is paying millions to broadcast

  18. Sean

    September 16, 2015 at 8:31 am

    “Whatever the outcome, promotion/relegation isn’t the answer for MLS.”

    Umm, when you’re drawing a ZERO rating, maybe it’s time. Jesus Christ – why are MLS fanboys so anti-pro/rel? It works for literally every single country that plays soccer on Earth.

    • Tim

      September 16, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Investor pats $100 mil for franchise. There is no way in hell owners will ever go for that. Have you ever seen our lower leagues? Teams are playing in in high school stadiums. Its not being fanboys, its called being realistic. No on watches euro ball becuase of pro/rel. They watch because the best players in the world are in the leagues which make them great. Get a clue.

      • slowleftarm

        September 16, 2015 at 9:48 am

        The owners don’t get to make that call

        USSF & FIFA can dictate an open pyramid and tell Bob Kraft to go **** himself

    • yespage

      September 16, 2015 at 12:32 pm

      The travel. Simply put, the US is a big country and to move about gets expensive. Even the minor leagues in the US are split up into regions.

      Furthermore, support for clubs isn’t extremely high, so if a team was relegated, that could be the end of things. We don’t have the 100 to 150 year club history with our soccer teams that help propel the lower division teams in Europe. Then add in the First Tier money the owners paid into the system to get the team and you can see why it doesn’t work.

      I would love for relegation/promotion to exist, but the US doesn’t have the support for the higher tier teams to likely support a minor league run.

      • LF

        October 13, 2015 at 12:37 am

        I do not buy the “US is too large for a single table argument”. In both the NBA and the NHL, every team plays each other at least twice a year (at least one at home and one away). For years, MLS could have instituted a single-table format without playoffs but chose not to do so.

    • Sasquatch

      September 18, 2015 at 1:41 pm

      Because we’re Americans and the average American sports fan with the NFL, NCAAF, NBA, NHL, and MLB mindset does not get the concept. Why cheer for a team that could “drop down to the minors” (as most Americans see it) the following year. Unless we are satisfied with winning the soccer fan that already exists rather than growing fandom, it will not be popular with new soccer fans, advertisers, or investors.

  19. Tim

    September 16, 2015 at 7:58 am

    These are the first very bad ratings all year since the new TV deal. Its clearly not good but hardly the end of the world. NFL is not an excuse but it was opening weekend. I watch a lot of MLS/EPL and even I was watching NFL last sunday. It still shows the work that needs to be done to attract Joe Blow sports fan outside of local markets.

  20. Dean Stell

    September 16, 2015 at 6:14 am

    I think it’s just the TV is saturated and most of MLS games don’t have a hook. Soccer broadcasting in the US is immense. There’s TONS of it on TV. Unless you have a rooting interest or there is a *STAR* on the field, you’re just watching a soccer game on TV. MLS doesn’t “suck”, but you can watch a lot of soccer that is better every weekend because we have EPL, La Liga, Serie A, etc., etc.

    And there is also tons of sport on TV: American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc. Gotta compete with that too.

    And there is other stuff: HGTV, Real Housewives, Big Bang theory, etc.

    I think Gio is kinda unique. I’m not sure SKC games got a boost when Omar Bravo played for them. Gio is kinda “that guy” for Mexico: is good, was hard to see on TV regularly because Valencia wasn’t always on TV and doesn’t always get called up for Mexico. He’s kinda like Benny Fielhaber is for USMNT…..if he played in Europe and we rarely got to see him. Go sign Carlos Velez or other Latin players that are in European purgatory where they aren’t playing all the time and aren’t on TV all the time either.

    • yespage

      September 16, 2015 at 12:28 pm

      This is a good point. There is only so much football one can watch in a given period of time. Bundesliga is running into trouble over that, and German football is much better than American football. The US Domestic league is getting under cut by the availability of the top foreign leagues in Europe (all of them).

  21. Rob

    September 15, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    The reason the ratings are so poor is because MLS has turned its back on soccer fans in this country by trying to mimic the NFL or the nba in how it’s structured, instead of building an actual footy league. MLS is just too “Americanized”. Die hard footy fans can and do easily turn to European leagues and Liga MX for REAL football. MLS will never be anything but an after thought to born and raised soccer fans in this country as long as they continue down their idiotic path of trying to pretend they’re not a soccer league.
    With the invention of the Internet, it’s just as easy to watch a second division European footy match as it is MLS (in fact it’s easier because MLS blacks out al their games), and if you want to watch soccer, you choose the league that isn’t ashamed to be a soccer league.

    • garybo

      September 16, 2015 at 8:21 am

      Agree. MLS and it’s single entity structure has given us a lifeless, colorless soccer league that barely beats paint drying on the excitement scale.

    • Lou burns

      September 16, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Agree totally with Rob on this. I just can’t take MLS seriously as long as the ridiculous playoff system exists rather than a straight table.

      • Kei

        September 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm

        Playoffs in isolation aren’t terrible — it’s the fact that a full 60% of the league can take part in it that ruins it for MLS. Why bother watching any games for the first 5-6 months of season under that format?

        Hell, if they’re going to keep the playoff format at all, it should consist of a straight duel between the two best teams record-wise, regardless of their location.

        • yespage

          September 16, 2015 at 12:26 pm

          People watch baseball and that is a 162 game season!

          For soccer fans, though, playoffs definitely take away from the regular season. Every point doesn’t count. They should also do away with the conferences and go to a single table.

          But ultimately, there isn’t quite as much exposure for the MLS as there is for the EPL, and when the EPL has the better product by a long shot, it is going to win out. Especially with its time slot in the US. EPL is mostly done before College and Professional football on Sat/Sun. MLS has to fight against Football in the US and that is a very hard thing to do.

          • Tom

            September 17, 2015 at 2:08 pm

            Baseball also has an audience that skews older. The total younger demos of a typical Sunday Night Baseball telecast are barely higher than a high-profile EPL or Liga MX match (sometimes even lower). The 162-game season works for the aging purists who grew up watching baseball and nothing but baseball. But even MLB could stand to shorten the season if they want to win over Millennial fans, who aren’t as high on baseball since they have more live sports viewing options than their parents and grandparents did.

      • Chris G

        September 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm

        Liga MX?

  22. Blue Lou

    September 15, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Yes, it’s primarily “Jurgen Klinsmann’s current track record” standing between the US and a World Cup…give me a break.

  23. Chris G

    September 15, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    What they indicate is that the NFL season has started. Unlike the other leagues, MLS’ sunday games directly conflict with the most popular sports league in America.

    • Kei

      September 16, 2015 at 11:25 am

      MLS certainly isn’t doing itself any favors by pitting its televised games against NFL Sunday games. But otoh, it’s not like the ratings prior to this past weekend were blowing any doors out, either.

      It kinda says to me that MLS is still barely a speck on the American sports radar — and even if it was more than that (it ain’t), both the EPL and Liga MX have far more presence here on a weekly basis.

    • Eplnfl

      September 16, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      Let’s face it the important news is the good August numbers and not the viewers when football starts. I think it wrong to say this shows a negative attitude or real problem. Soccer is now strong in America and getting stronger. Sorry Chris but I think the focus should be on the big picture and not on the opening weekend of the NFL and early season NCAA.

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