FOX’s coverage of the 2018 MLS Cup Final between Atlanta United and Portland Timbers averaged 1.5 million viewers on the over-the-air network, an increase of 10% compared to the last time a MLS final was televised on the same network two years ago when Seattle defeated Toronto FC, thanks to a report by Showbuzz Daily.
It’s Major League Soccer’s second best viewership on record for a MLS Cup Final. The previous best was 2.2 million that watched the 1997 MLS Cup Final on ABC.
MLS’ viewing number greatly benefitted from the Atlanta effect, one of the most exciting teams to play in the league in over a decade. Managed by Tata Martino, Atlanta United’s playing style is an attacking, free-flowing game that features several exciting stars including Josef Martínez, Miguel Almirón, Héctor Villalba and Michael Parkhurst.
Buoyed by an equally incredible fanbase, Atlanta has become a must-watch team in MLS in a league where the Georgia team far outpaces any other team in the country. Without Atlanta in the final, surely the viewing figure for the 2018 MLS Cup Final would have been much less.
The viewing number for the 2018 MLS Cup Final does mask what has been largely been a disappointing year for the league’s TV ratings. For the 2018 regular season, viewing numbers were down on both ESPN and FS1. While the viewing numbers were up for the over-the-air FOX network, it was only because they aired the games immediately after World Cup matches when TV sets were left on. On the Spanish-language side, ratings were way up on Univision Deportes, which helped boost the overall numbers. In 2018, ESPN and ESPN2 had their lowest audience for MLS games since 2014.
The disappointing viewing numbers continued into the MLS Cup playoffs and semi-finals. The Conference semi-finals saw a 4% drop in viewership on English-language television when compared to last season, averaging just 240,125 on FS1 and ESPN. Viewership for the Western Conference Final was down almost 10% dropping from 326,000 average viewers in 2017 to 295,000 average viewers in 2018. The Eastern Conference Final was down 7% and 21,000 viewers from the 2017 edition.
Despite all of the doom and gloom for Major League Soccer, the league now potentially has a team that can be appealing for soccer fans to watch nationally. Whether Atlanta United can continue to win the hearts and minds of soccer fans across the United States, we will have to wait and see (especially after losing their star coach Tata Martino to Mexico, and rumors of their top players heading to Europe). But there is a strong foundation in Atlanta that could dominate over all of the other MLS clubs for years to come, thus creating a powerhouse in the league.
Regarding the actual television coverage of the 2018 MLS Cup Final itself, it wasn’t a home run for FOX Sports but it was improved compared to previous broadcasts that they’ve done. The much-hyped corner flag cam thankfully wasn’t used a lot during the broadcast. The halftime show was uninformative. During the pre-match, halftime and post-match, studio analysts Maurice Edu and Alexi Lalas were pedestrian, but we weren’t expecting much given that FOX Sports presenter Rob Stone isn’t one to ask tough questions that elicit thought-provoking answers. Overall, FOX’s coverage of the MLS Cup Final was adequate, which is a boost for them because it didn’t deter people away from the broadcast like they’ve done with other soccer properties they’ve televised in the past.
Both the 2016 and 2018 finals were televised in primetime on a Saturday night.
The viewing average on the Spanish-language broadcast of the game on UniMas was not available as of press time.