ESPN Plus’ niche audiences could help increase MLS exposure
While it’s possible MLS could get lost in the shuffle with so much programming on the ESPN Plus platform, the move should be beneficial. It is true that in the past, MLS has had trouble breaking through on platforms that cater to mainstream sports audiences. Despite consistent shuffling of time slots, shifting in thought-processes as to what attracts viewers and a continued presence on the top national all-sports cable channels, the league simply hasn’t done well on television by any truly objective measurement.
MLS television ratings continue to underwhelm. But the cord-cutting demographic fits soccer coverage perhaps better than the traditional TV model, and if MLS’ goal is to capture more core soccer supporters than mainstream American sports fans, ESPN Plus being a platform that has other soccer properties could benefit MLS. With 30% of sports viewers in the US consuming content on phones and tablets rather than through the traditional broadcast means, MLS could be well-positioned to take better advantage of a pay service like ESPN Plus than most other domestic sporting properties. ESPN Plus at least initially feels like a service that will cater to multiple niches, be it soccer fans, fans of smaller college sports programs, lacrosse fans, those who like volleyball or tennis, auto racing fans or whatever. The service may not appeal at least initially to NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA fans, but that shouldn’t impact how it benefits MLS.
It is largely assumed the BAMTech license to broadcast Football League and League Cup matches from England will lead to a shift of these properties to the new pay streaming service. The availability of both products on ESPN3 this season has increased the interest in these competitions in the US market. Additionally, other soccer properties such as the DFB Pokal, UEFA Nations League and many international friendlies are likely to be placed on ESPN Plus, giving further incentive for soccer fans to sign up.
To a large extent, ESPN Plus might serve certain niche’s rather than a full complement of mainstream sports fans. But for soccer fans in the US, accustomed for years of paying additional to get access to the (non-Premier League) matches we want to see, ESPN+’ low price point might be a boon. This can only help MLS whose appeal to hardcore soccer fans continues to disappoint while the league’s appeals to win over masses of mainstream sports fans have also fallen flat, at least from a television perspective.