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2016 MLS Cup final TV rating glosses over unbearable game

Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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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  1. john

    December 29, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Originally MLS Cup final was in October, now it’s almost in the middle of December.

    This final came a few days short of heavy snowfall in Toronto which would’ve meant a snowout, what would MLS do? Push ahead and played in the snow or delayed the game? Freezing weather doesn’t make for great football, this is a risk for almost every team from north-midwest to north-east coast.

    It’s time to put the final back to a neutral venue, Can’t see why MLS doesn’t play MLS Cup somewhere like Las Vegas or Orlando rotating between the two.

    Make these venues synomymus with MLS Cup final like Wembley is for the FA Cup. #RoadToVegas #RoadToOrlando becomes rallying cry for fans and marketing term for MLS
    -A venue where fans could afford to stay in plentiful hotels.
    -Guaranteed fine weather, optimum for soccer.
    -Fan rivalry 10-15,000 fans of each team
    -Unlike current Cup where away team wins and home fans leave stadium, with empty stadium for MLS Cup presentation
    -Create a celebratory MLS Cup weekend, awards ceremonies wtc, fans from all teams could be there, a holiday set a year in advance not on the wim of who gets to the final with 2 weeks to book flights & hotel.

    MLS longterm should focus on regional rivalries, MLS is US and Can, geographically and population wise that is around the same as the whole of Europe. England alone has 92 professional clubs Europe has over 1000 clubs.

    Therefore it’s not stupid for MLS to have 40 teams, with emphasis on regional leagues where fans want to win their division. This would make MLS playoffs an extention of the season rather than current system where no-one cares about regular season, only winning MLS Cup. 40 teams of 5 team divisons would mean e.g. LAFC, LA Galaxy, Sacremento, SJ, San Diego/Las Vegas in one division.

    Far from harming NYRB crowds NYCFC now means NYRB get the biggest crowd of the season, Regional rivalries as Portland Seattle proved is the most sustainable model for MLS, and this should be further developed.

    MLS can’t do anything about TV figures unless it throws billions into the ring and buys the best players, that isn’t going to happen, but at the very least with each new team MLS adds 25-50k MLS supporters.

    A 40 team MLS means at least 1m-2m people know about MLS, which will help MLS, until billionaires want to throw money at it, USMNT win the world cup or or some Messi or Ronaldo is born in the USA.

  2. Angus

    December 15, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    So the winning team had zero shots on goal!
    Toronto had loads.
    Whichever team you were supporting you had high adrenaline excitement.
    Everyone complaining about the standard of soccer and thinks EPL is better hasn’t been to/watched matches that involve teams other than United, City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Let alone the hundreds of thousands that go and watch the other 72 teams in the English League.
    The thing is, a 0-0 draw is a close match that (as long as you are supporting one of the sides) will have you on the edge of your seat for 120 minutes just like the game on Saturday.
    Yes it wasn’t a great game for the neutral, so don’t be a neutral. I can’t watch any sport without taking a side (Doing that can even make Baseball bearable!) and once you get behind a team (I supported the Sounders) you will find out why it’s called The Beautiful Game.
    Yes, I gripe about play offs and pandering to the Americans as they defile our sport for greed and money, but until it collapses again and re-builds under FIFA rules, it’s all we’ve got so make the most of it.

  3. NaBUru38

    December 14, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    “the winning team had zero shots on goal in 120 minutes”
    Enough said.

  4. Murica First

    December 14, 2016 at 6:53 am

    NASL and Euro snob writing an article on MLS. Hate written all over it. What a joke this site has become.

    • CTBlues

      December 14, 2016 at 8:34 am

      MLS needs to get to 40 and then have MLS1 and MLS2 with pro/rel between the two with USL its minor league or just have MLS West and MLS East with the top 2 teams in each league determine who goes to the final. Oh, and no inter-league play minus the final and US Open Cup. Also send the Canadian teams to the CPL so more US cities can have a chance. The All-Star game can just be East vs West.

  5. erk

    December 14, 2016 at 12:30 am

    Looks like the people insulting the author need to accept the truth. Instead of trying to answer the author’s article with facts they just insult him. The author is giving facts that some MLS fans cant’ accept so instead of trying to come back with a valid argument they insult the author instead. The reality is the MLS’ effort to grow is failing. In 1996 they drew a 1.4 rating, 20 years later they drew a 1.0 with 1.4 million viewers, that’s awful. Liga MX regular season games involving bad teams draw more. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Mary Poppins beat the MLS Cup in viewership and ratings. Ratings of re-runs of the 45 year old Chavo del 8 constantly destroy MLS games on UniMas as well. For example in September a re-run of El Chavo drew 247k compared to a MLS game that same day only drew 184k. This year there was no real sports competition and this still did a bad numbers. MLS fans blamed also the NFL, College football, a bad time slot and other things for MLS’ bad ratings. 20 years is plenty of time to develop a league since MLS fans constantly blame the league’s young age for its bad ratings too.

    • CTBlues

      December 14, 2016 at 8:19 am

      They probably should blame the young fan base since young people don’t watch TV the traditional way anymore.

    • Tim

      December 14, 2016 at 8:38 am

      The league has grown a lot and it still is. The only place it has not grown like everyone would like is TV and yes i know how important it is. Even with poor TV ratings they are still increasing year after year. Also…hockey and plenty of EPL game get outdrawn by reruns on tv along with other sports so that makes no sense. At the end of the day people will never be happy. You could take all the players of the EPL and put them on MLS teams and people would still complain just because they dont know any better. Other than Liga MX stop acting like soccer has made it here. TV ratings for baseball, basketball and football still blow away all soccer on tv.

    • LF

      April 15, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      This is the best comment here. The fact that the MLS’ premier event was beaten by Rudolph/Frosty the Snowman & Mary Poppins should set off alarm bells. Knowing what I know about MLS…it will not.

  6. Quintin

    December 13, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    I actually think the entire match was intense and well played. True, the score was 0-0 after 120 minutes,, but that happens. A big part of soccer is defense, which is true in every league. MLS is on the right trajectory, and I’m enjoying the ride.

    • trev

      December 14, 2016 at 11:56 am

      The team that failed to get a single shot on goal won the game. Definitely something wrong with that picture

  7. Patrick

    December 13, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    The Canadian ratings were over 1.5 million viewers (1.42 million in English on TSN and 92,000 in French on RDS. So by the time you add Spanish Univision numbers the total North American numbers will likely be near 3.5 million.

    • CTBlues

      December 14, 2016 at 8:13 am

      That’s very impressive to have 1.5m viewers in a country of ~36m. Whereas 2.012m in a country of ~325m not so much.

  8. David

    December 13, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    Yes, the game was poor but I don’t think its fair to knock MLS. Toronto making MLS Cup and two Canadian teams in the Eastern Conference Finals attracted a lot of new Canadian fans. Unfortunately poor games happen all the time, even in the so called best leagues in the world. How many Premier League matches have been so hyped up this season they turned out to be huge duds. Arsenal vs Man Utd comes to mind. Even the Champions League hasn’t been very good so far. I think its unfortunate MLS Cup wasn’t a very good game, but I don’t think it did any damage to attract new fans. I think even more people tuned in this year because of the incredible Eastern Conference Finals.

  9. Vsssqz

    December 13, 2016 at 5:47 pm

    But but but it was cold Saturday so people went to bed! Or maybe it’s Saturday night so all the MLS fans were out partying???? Last year it was college footballs fault, other years the NFLs fault? Or is it Decembers fault and winter schedule? But ratings suck in the summer so that’s not it? Hmmmm what could it be, any day any time of year ratings are horrible, final game has worse ratings than some E sports and world series of poker and as someone else posted the Nathans hot dog event, 48 hours mystery had double the ratings of the MLS cup on Saturday. Strange millions didn’t tune in to watch the U.S. male soccer player of the year the legend Altidore or the Italian Messi playing against defenders making 60K a year, weird that the title game ratings are about the same as a Liga MX match on Univision on any given weekend. Maybe fans just don’t get it and it’s Garber and you MLS fans that are ahead of your time when it comes to brilliant soccer.

  10. Dave

    December 13, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I think this article is pretty spot on. MLS is ‘my’ league and I do want to see it grow, but we need to be realists too. It is an uphill climb. I am not sure how that 1.4 is measured (total unique homes, the peak number of viewers, etc.), but if one team had a 2-3 goal lead, I would argue the numbers might be lower.

    Your comment on “…the viewing audience should have been far greater.”
    Question. On your last pod, you/Kartik said 1.8 million would be a good audience. Was that Fox and Univision combined, or just Fox. Even if you are just considering Fox, the distance between 1.4 and 1.8 isn’t that big (‘far greater’) of a gap. If your 1.8 included both networks, then that was exceeded.

    • Christopher Harris

      December 13, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      Kartik said he thought 1.8 million would be a respectable number for FOX plus Univision. I said that FOX would have to hit 1.5 million on the English-language FOX network. FOX came close, but ultimately failed to reached that number.

  11. Tim

    December 13, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    I enjoyed the game. Most finals are garbage anyway. Seems like most of you are just miserable people. I find it shocking that millions of Americans enjoy high school and college football but never care that its a lesser quality yet when it comes to soccer everyone is bitter when American soccer fans get excited about a domestic product. I feel bad for your lives.

  12. Pa

    December 13, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Also agree the game was poor.

  13. Pa

    December 13, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I think the weather also was a factor, playing in temperatures in the 20’s, is not good MLS needs to find a way to have MLS CUP in November and not December, the playoffs take too long too many brakes .

    • CTBlues

      December 14, 2016 at 8:01 am

      It doesn’t help that there is a FIFA windows in October and November.

  14. Zander

    December 13, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    MLS garbage…can’t wait for the even more watered-down 28 team league!

    The college semis/finals were way better.

  15. No Name

    December 13, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    And before you start cheering the ratings, note that the National Dog Show had 3 million viewers during Thanksgiving weekend and that the lower tier of soccer at the NASL is just about bankrupt and closed, so pretty literally, soccer not yet ready for prime time.

  16. landon

    December 13, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Shocker a butt hurt Brit looking for a way to knock down American soccer. Per usual on this site. You’re just mad because no mls team will give you a gig or the time of day. I’d rather watch this than with a bunch of fake eurosnobs in a bar, all cheering for their favorite top 4 team, that they clearly grew up loving in London(or Manchester), drinking lager, singing in a fake accent and hating on American soccer.

    • Vsssqz

      December 13, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      HAHAHHAHAHA you mad? Nobody wants to watch your rec league standard?

  17. No Name

    December 13, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    At least the good news is that not everyone is in a coma, at least as of yet. Repeats of 50 year old Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and Mary Poppins still had triple the ratings of live (well not really alive) soccer.

  18. No Name

    December 13, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    I should say the ratings were pretty amazing for the gruesomely monotonous and brain numbing affair that world soccer is and has been. I guess the dummies have won. First Trump, now soccer.


  19. bluri4

    December 13, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    What were the ratings for MLS Cup’s Spanish-language broadcast?

    • Christopher Harris

      December 13, 2016 at 2:28 pm

      601,000 on Univision Deportes and UniMas combined. The numbers just came in.

  20. Smokey Bacon

    December 13, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    While the final was not the advert the league wanted, it happens. The Toronto-Montreal games were very entertaining, played to full stadiums with great atmospheres. Moaning on about why the MLS is not more like the EPL is getting old. You may not like the playoffs but they are a fact of life of American sports. Nothing’s perfect but MLS is making steady progress in a highly competitive sports market.

    • Don't worry

      December 13, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Good comment I agree. European knobs should stop writing articles to do with anything American soccer. I hope they could post the Canadian tv ratings too. It’s a final that went to penalties were u expecting the final to finish 5-1, 5-3 100-100 goals. That’s where the person writing this article doesn’t understand soccer. Another European(from England) knob always taking low blows cause they can’t admit MLS IS BECOMING BIGGER 1.4MILLION VIEWERS IS HUGE FOR AMERICAN SOCCER. Even other sports stars were watching the game . Sorry European knob writer MLS is here to stay. #HATER

      • ted

        December 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm

        It’s not 14 million, its 1..4 million, which is very low

        • Sentient

          December 14, 2016 at 9:17 am

          Very low compared to what? NFL?

          • NaBUru38

            December 14, 2016 at 1:50 pm

            Any NBA game on ESPN or TNT get 1.4 million viewers.

            • Geo

              December 14, 2016 at 4:48 pm

              But those are regular season NBA ratings. If you compare MLS Cup ratings to the NBA Finals, which get at least 15 million viewers, the MLS Cup rating is tiny.

    • Zander

      December 13, 2016 at 4:36 pm

      We’ll never really know the answer to the MLS vs EPL debate because the MLS doesn’t even have a team that can hang with the EPL. Instead, once a year we get a b.s. bloated ‘cavalcade of stars’ game. Should be the past year’s champs (stupid playoffs) vs whichever EPL team wins the summer abroad lottery. Sunderland beating Seattle 18-0 would still be better than that all-star crap.

      • landon

        December 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm

        When mls or usl teams play Euro Poser League teams and win the snobs say it’s because of the team being in preseason. If the mls or usl team lose they then say “see i told you it’s crap.” Lose lose situation. But yeah the all star game is a joke.

      • Sentient

        December 14, 2016 at 9:20 am

        Lol, if we never get a game that’s an appropriate representation of a competitive match between MLS and EPL, how do you know we can’t hang with them? Also, who can’t we hang with? Chelsea? Arsenal? ManU? Just wondering because 90% of world clubs “can’t hang” with them.

  21. Don't worry

    December 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Terrible article must be a European knob writing this Article just lost one person that gave this website a chance bye Felicia

    • Lawrence Dockery

      December 13, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      You should stick around for future USMNT game preview and USMNT & USWNT TV ratings and attendance figures. Plus results from summer friendlies and a list of the largest soccer crowds of the year.

  22. Bruce Wayne

    December 13, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Well said.

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