In isolation, the TV viewing number of 1.411 million people who watched the 2016 MLS Cup final on English-language network television is a win.
Yes, it’s the most-watched MLS Cup Final since 2001. And the viewing number was much greater than the average viewing number for the MLS 2016 regular season (276,689). But before US soccer reporters start blowing their horns to celebrate in unison, context is needed.
With this game being featured in primetime on a Saturday night on FOX’s network TV, which is in 116 million homes, the viewing audience should have been far greater. In comparison, the Liga MX Apertura final second leg just over a week ago was watched by 1.502 million people on Univision. In August, the Premier League match between Manchester United and Hull City on NBC was watched by 1.159 million (with a 9:30am PT / 12:30pm ET start time). Also more people (1.433 million) watched the December 3 Barcelona-Real Madrid game across cable TV networks beIN SPORTS and beIN SPORTS en Español than the MLS Cup final on FOX.
Putting the numbers into context, the MLS Cup final on FOX did very well compared to previous MLS Cup final TV ratings. But TV networks such as beIN SPORTS and NBC would have loved to televise their games in the same primetime Saturday night window for a true apples to apples comparison.
For perspective, MLS has to start somewhere. And after 21 years of being in business, the decision by FOX and MLS to feature the MLS Cup final in primetime on network television is an excellent starting point. The TV numbers will help the league and FOX Sports attract more sponsors, as well as to hope that those new viewers who watched the game will return next season to watch more games.
However, the game itself was not the advertisement that the league needed. While the league will be able to spin the positive TV ratings, the match itself was a dismal game featuring no goals and very few moments of excitement. The fact that the winning team had zero shots on goal in 120 minutes made the experience of watching the game even more unbearable. For MLS, the game is unlikely to be the springboard for MLS TV ratings that Major League Soccer wanted.
Based on the sub-standard quality of play, the 2016 MLS Cup final exposed many of the same issues that have been plaguing the league for years — namely poor refereeing, an overly-physical style of play that at times resembled kickball, and a contrived playoff system that rewards a team playing ugly soccer in the final instead of giving the team that won the regular season the championship.
As the third most popular soccer league on television in its own country, MLS continues to have a ton of issues that are preventing the league from being a popular destination for TV viewers. At a time when the 2016 MLS Cup final could have been a turning point for the league, MLS is facing a crossroads. One very important question is how it can continue, if at all, to improve its TV ratings for the 2017 MLS season given that it has lost several of its stars as well as the fact that the 2017 MLS Cup final will be on ESPN.
For MLS, the hard work starts now.
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