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Leagues: MLS

MLS TV ratings account for just 6% of soccer TV viewing

Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I analyzed the soccer TV ratings data World Soccer Talk collected for 2016. This year, World Soccer Talk writer and researcher Collin Werner has more data for the 2017 season. The 2016 data did not include the Liga MX Clausura, amounting to just over one hundred games, but that is included in 2017’s numbers. This makes it possible to compare the performance of MLS on TV to its two main broadcast rivals, Liga MX and the Premier League across the entire season. The year 2017 was also a bigger year for international games with World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup. As a result, the 2017 data covers 1455 broadcast games compared to 1064 in 2016.

Table 1 below summarizes the average viewership and the number of games shown, as well as the share of total (soccer) viewership and the share of total soccer games shown. Of the pro leagues, Liga MX dominates in terms of the average with 29% of total viewership in US with only 17% of the total games shown. The Premier League has a similar share of games shown and this is comparable to its share of viewership (17% and 19% respectively). In 2016, the data suggested MLS was getting 7% market share of soccer viewers with only 6% of games played. In 2017, the numbers are reversed – 6% market share for 7% of games shown. Whatever you think of these numbers, the striking fact is that they appear to be stable.

The year 2017 was a big one for World Cup qualifiers, and so one striking difference from 2016 is that the average viewership for international games was more than twice as high – 662,000 compared to 306,000.

Table 1 suggests that among the leagues, LaLiga is quite close to MLS in terms of overall share although not in terms of average viewership per game, while the UEFA Champions League matches MLS in terms of viewership per game despite being mostly played on a midweek afternoon when most adults would be at work. By contrast, the Bundesliga is struggling to make any impact in terms of viewership despite accounting for almost 10% of soccer games shown.

Table 2 provides a month by month breakdown of MLS games comparing the last two seasons. The pattern is broadly similar, although one noticeable difference is that the season peak in 2016 was in June while in 2017 it was in August, just as the Premier League started playing. This is mildly encouraging for MLS, although more worrying must be the drop off in October and November as the season ends and goes into the playoffs – this should be the most exciting and therefore attractive programming. No doubt competition from American football as well as European soccer getting into full swing accounts for this.

For 2016, I noted the pattern of viewership based on time slots for MLS, Liga MX and EPL – the same pattern appears in 2017 while I’ve also broken down the figures for internationals. Primetime (defined here as 8pm-11pm ET; I include games in this category if at least one entire half is played in primetime) is the most attractive slot, but because of time zones, the Premier League never plays in primetime. By contrast, 45% of MLS games and 70% of Liga MX games are played in primetime.

Table 3 shows that Liga MX viewership is almost 30% greater when games are played in primetime, while viewership of internationals is more than three times greater in primetime. But MLS viewership is almost identical on average whether in primetime or not. There are two effects here. Demand is higher in primetime but also games are selected for primetime showing if they are likely to be more attractive. The concern for MLS is that they seem unable to select games for primetime that turn out to be more attractive. The fact that MLS cannot get a higher viewership in primetime than the EPL can on a Saturday and Sunday morning, or that Liga MX can attract more than double the audience of MLS in primetime is bad enough. But think about how this will look when the time comes to renew the TV contract. MLS is banking on a large increase in the broadcast contract to meet the expectations of their investors, but the TV executives will just show them these figures and ask why they should shell out big bucks for a product that is so niche that it does not benefit from primetime exposure.

Table 4 compares all those games where an MLS game is shown on the same day as an EPL game or a Liga MX game or both. There were 47 such days in 2017. Of these, on only 4 days did MLS attract the biggest audience on the day. On these “double header” days, viewership for Liga MX and EPL was slightly higher on average, while viewership for MLS was slightly lower. For MLS, the hope must be that playing on the same day as the more popular leagues generates interest, which will trickle down to MLS. The data suggests that this is not the case.

Editor’s note: Stefan Szymanski is a university professor and author of Soccernomics (2018 World Cup Edition): Why England Loses; Why Germany, Spain, and France Win; and Why One Day Japan, Iraq, and the United States Will Become Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport.

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27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Noanchom

    January 27, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    Any possibility of seeing a similar analysis of TV ratings from countries like Mexico, Brazil, England Germany, etc.? One suspects that their domestic broadcasts enjoy a much larger proportion of viewership in their countries than MLS matches do in the US.

  2. NaBUru38

    April 27, 2018 at 8:19 am

    Stephan, Chris, the table says that only 107 MLS games are counted. So are you not including TV ratings of local broadcasts?

    • Christopher Harris

      April 27, 2018 at 9:44 am

      Correct, it’s focused on national broadcasts only. Regional/local broadcasts don’t tend to generate a lot of viewing numbers.

  3. Joe

    April 22, 2018 at 11:31 pm

    I feel as if you should support your local team if you have one regardless of weather it’s MLS, USL, NPSL, (insert whatever new SL) and that includes watching on TV. People love to watch the big teams not realizing that at one point they started with a small local following and many still follow their small or large local clubs all over the world.

    With that said if you’re not entertained by MLS games of the week that do not feature your club, that’s on MLS and it’s owners to fix. Also as I have said numerous times on here i will continue to boycott a league that is openely trying to move a team (Columbus) while it’s fans suffer playing the waiting game. I can’t stand for that. Sooooooooo get f*cked MLS!

  4. John G.

    April 22, 2018 at 12:05 am

    America – love MLS or leave it [America]

    It was a lie in the 1960’s about ‘Nam and it’s a lie now. The people who demand unconditional support for a league that sabotages its own product with an anti-competitive ownership structure are blind.

  5. Bappie

    April 20, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    Not surprising as MLS only accounts for 6% of games shown nationally.

  6. Larry Kern

    April 20, 2018 at 5:58 pm

    Anyone who is a fan of quality football should not waste their time watching MLS games. As a friend who is a Leicester fan once said speaking of the MLS:” What athleticism! What energy! It’s a shame they don’t have a plan! ” If you are European born or South American born (note: not Central American) you most probably wouldn’t waste time or money watching mediocrity. There is not one single player in the entire league who is world class. I’m not talking about people who used to be world class…only that no current world class players play in the MLS. Even Ibra couldn’t find a place on a current top team in Europe.

    • Bappie

      April 20, 2018 at 8:39 pm

      People should support their local teams. In England it will always be Notts County, in the US it’s New York City. Why would you try and spoil that with inane comments?

      • Edwin

        April 20, 2018 at 8:56 pm

        Yeah I agree luckily MLS is growing regardless TV rating are going in the right direction there will always be Euro Snobs who’s first love is European soccer so efff them. MLS will do better focusing on Americans who have that identity of supporting things made in America they won’t feel the need to bash THEIR DOMESTIC LEAGUE it serves no purpose.

        • coco

          April 25, 2018 at 4:19 pm

          Too bad most Americans are watching the Euro Leagues. Sucks for MLS.

        • John G.

          January 27, 2019 at 6:05 pm

          If MLS gives us an attractive product, we will watch it. Do not feed us BS about being “Euro snobs”..

          • Edwin

            January 28, 2019 at 5:17 pm

            You’ve been fed eat it Euro Snob!!

  7. This Again

    April 20, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I see you couldn’t write your annual MLS ratings are down article because they’re not they’re UP so you wrote this hit job instead. Journalism at it’s best.

  8. Alex Michalakos

    April 20, 2018 at 12:38 pm

    Well, not taking into account other factors, if MLS is 7% of games and 6% of viewers, that’s proportionate and competitive.

    On the other hand, bundesliga viewership is very poor compared to % games, 9% of games to 1% of views. So is La Liga. Must be the quality of play.

    Champions league games also have a lower % viewership compared to % of games aired . Again, the quality of play is bad so people don’t watch.

    So these stats are favorable to MLS, despite your attempts to mislead.

  9. fsquid

    April 20, 2018 at 11:25 am

    The only things that matters is whether or not TV is paying more or less for the TV rights.

  10. Brian McCullough

    April 20, 2018 at 9:59 am

    In table 1 , just curious -what constitutes “International” which accounts for 17% of the US soccer viewing at about 662,000 a game ?

    • Christopher Harris

      April 20, 2018 at 10:15 am

      Matches involving national teams (friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, etc).

  11. Eddy

    April 19, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    There*

  12. Eddy

    April 19, 2018 at 5:20 pm

    Also I will say I appreciate your effort in compiling the data but one thing you miss or don’t account for.

    1. The premier league has way more games broadcast on OTA (Over The Air) channels like NBC 35 games vs FOX MLS 5matches. This will have the affect of boosting EPL ratings. NBC does a great job of marketing their products and people now know Saturdays mornings there will be Premier league games on NBC.

    2 Liga MX broadcast 70% of their games on Univision on weekened nights and while Univision isn’t OTA like ABC,NBC, and CBS it may as well as be OTA for Spanish speaking Hispanics in the US due to cultural ties. As a African American it’s like me saying that most people that watch BET are Black well duh. If you don’t think I’m right about Liga MX tv numbers being a purely symbiotic Mexican spanish speaking cultural thing see: (ESPN English language Liga MX experiment) it failed miserably and looked similar to Bundesliga ratings do up against MLS.

    So I don’t know why you’d use Liga MX it’s really apple to oranges and provides limited insight unless you are just trying to drive a narrative piece. MLS vs Bundesliga vs EPL vs La Liga on English tv is apples to apples.

    3. MLS should get a combined TV rights deal in the $300-450 mil range when MLS TV rights are up in 2022. Perfect example look at Bundesliga. FOX is paying about $100 million yr US and FOX only pays MLS $30 million per yr

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrissmith/2016/05/19/the-bundesliga-makes-huge-leap-in-first-season-with-fox-still-has-hill-to-climb/#53201cad4251
    http://www.sportspromedia.com/news/bundesliga_to_double_international_rights_fees_with_fox_deal

    MLS is out pacing Bundesliga TV ratings by about 5 to 1. Before people say they aren’t marketing Bundesliga properly I don’t think that’s true. They market it about the same as MLS and Bundesliga have more games put on OTA on FOX than MLS. They are trying to draw a soccer crowd with Bundesliga, they should let those rights expire and give MLS more games on FOX , that would be a smarter business move and will be a greater bang for their buck. Throw that additional $100 million into MLS instead of some foreign league.

    So all in all why would MLS expect to get a huge TV rights deal increase? Because when you look at the metrics you have a league like Bundesliga getting $100 mil US per yr for way crappier ratings, you SHOULD demand more. Also while its a different sport but a apples to apples comparison. NHL averaged 302,000 on cable on NBCSN yet NHL receives $200 mil per yr and sources have said NHL is seeking no less than $500 mil per yr for it’s next US TV deal. MLS is currently averaging 300k on cable on FS1/ESPN and Univision. Their is room for growth in TV $$$ and it’s validated.

    • nathan

      April 19, 2018 at 6:39 pm

      interesting points, thanks for the analysis. Fox really does a poor job marketing their soccer in general. I scrolled through the fox sports twitter feed to see how often they are pumping up bundesliga. zero in the last week, only retweets of Lalas annoying face spouting non-sense. fox soccer twitter does mention games but, not fox sports which is a little strange. also, Fox seems to promote Lalas as a means to promote their soccer broadcasts, that is a mistake in my opinion. I would rather see highlight vids, rivalry building… anything other than a personality.

    • John G.

      April 21, 2018 at 11:59 pm

      If MLS demands insane rights fees, the league will end up invisible on PPV.

  13. Eddy

    April 19, 2018 at 4:11 pm

    Oh here comes the yearly Apr. You post these doom and gloom articles every April a month into the season. Here is the annual MLS numbers are low article, how about you wait until the year is done before you write these.
    1. MLS ratings are always lower in the beginning of the year, they peak during the summer months when it’s just MLS and MLB and trend down during the NFL season before recovering some for MLS Cup Playoffs.
    2. MLS ratings have actually increased every year since they have signed their last TV rights package.
    Like clockwork so I’m going to save you guys from jumping off the ledge after reading this. Despite this article MLS will post a gain in viewership. As the league expands so will the TV ratings over on Bigsoccer.com we have tracked a trend analysis of the numbers and like clock work MLS average TV rating appears it will be in the 275-295k range as the current TV average is 301,721 or 302k

    2014- 19 teams 200k Avg. TV Rating
    2015- 20 teams 219k Avg. TV Rating
    2016- 20 teams 250k Avg. TV Rating
    2017- 22 teams 253k Avg. TV Rating
    2018- 23 teams ??? Avg. TV Rating

    http://www.bigsoccer.com/threads/the-2018-mls-tv-thread.2080174/page-7
    Keep in mind the numbers will increase some as they don’t have streaming numbers from Univision included and streaming number viewership has been spotted as high as 30-40k for matched on Twitter.

    MLS TV 2018 TV Ratings

    ESPN Networks FOX Networks Univision Networks

    Week 1

    HOU v ATL 469K UNI March 3
    SEA v LAFC 456K ESPN Mar 4
    SKC v NYCFC 180K FS1 Mar 4
    LAG v Port 168K FS1 Mar 4

    Week2

    ATL v DC 576K ESPN Mar 11
    RSL v LAFC 429K UNI Mar 10

    Week 3

    NYCFC v OCSC 239k UNI Mar 17

    Week 4

    FCD v Portland 198k UniMas Mar 24

    Week 5

    OCSC v NYRB 171k UniMas Mar 31
    San Jose v NYCFC 115k ESPN2 Mar 31
    LAG v LAFC 676K FOX Mar 31

    Week 6

    ATL v LAFC ESPN 259k Apr 9
    LAG v SKC FS1 229k Apr 9
    OCSC v Portland 181k ESPN Apr 8

    Week 7

    Phil vs Orlando ESPN 253k Apr 13
    Chicago v LA Galaxy ??? Apr 14
    ATL UTD v NYCFC FS1 197k Apr 15
    Sporting KC v Seattle ESPN 248k Apr 15

    Total Network Average 301.7k
    Average ESPN Networks 298.7k
    Average Fox Networks 305.3k
    Average Univision Networks 301.2k

    • MLS Clowns

      April 20, 2018 at 8:21 am

      Oh here comes the monthly MLS excuses of why the ratings are crap and how really many more are watching yet everyone is not sophisticated enough like you to see it. I really hope the MLS is paying people like you, I know they are not but really it’s the only thing that would make sense for the pathetic excuses people like you make, like a mother defending their child coming running to the defense of MLS, it’s sad.

      • Eddy

        April 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm

        Here comes the stupid mouth breather with nothing to input that thinks his opinions matters. Try comprehending just exactly what I wrote. I offered a thorough take down of why the writer of this article is wrong. I’m sorry if you and him don’t like it. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is the writer that responded lol. People like you offer opinions with nothing to back it up. Don’t just offer a opinion tell me why it’s valid. MLS ratings are actually up but you’d never know it from this article. that’s why BS was called. You can make stats say whatever you want goes the saying.

  14. marty

    April 19, 2018 at 2:48 pm

    Try and find the games on a network. You must search hard or subscribe. They need to open up a little and offer easier viewing. Who gets Canada channels and now ESPN+ a subscription option. They need free network coverage

    • nathan

      April 19, 2018 at 5:54 pm

      Agreed. I had to ask Jason Foster on twitter what channel I could watch the Toronto vs Chivas CCL first leg. There were plenty of mentions on standard media that the game was played later in the day but, no one mentioned where (channel) to watch. Maybe because I am in San Diego, there is no effort to market MLS to me but, I really have no idea when and where (channel) I can watch games. EPL? NBCsports markets the sh*t out of it, I know every saturday and sunday where and when to watch. Fox sports does a sh*t job marketing bundesliga games as well, the only reason I know Fox shows the games is because PS Vue (my tv provider) format shows giant soccer dude icon when i scan channels. I can’t help but wonder if this ceiling of viewership has to do with piss poor marketing.

      • Bappie

        April 20, 2018 at 8:33 pm

        Unvision,

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