Many soccer fans in the United States are accustomed to getting up in the morning and watching matches from Europe, leading to burnout by the end of each weekend day. Others focus on Liga MX and Latin American competitions that run concurrent with Major League Soccer and USL Championship matches. Others simply don’t like the product offered by the domestic league in the United States and opt not to watch it.
MLS TV ratings are poorer in the fall than during the summer. For those who take a very narrow Americanized-view of things this is due to the start of American football season. It is also quite likely that some of the drop-off in MLS viewership on ESPN and FS1 in the fall correlates with the start of the domestic soccer seasons in Europe’s “big five” leagues. We see MLS struggle at times in the spring as well after the initial excitement and promotion for the first few weeks of the season wear off.
I’ve spoken to quite a number of people who work in soccer or watch the sport closely. For some, it is true American sports, particularly college football more than the NFL, that’s the main reason for not watching MLS or USL matches in the evening. For others, it is the availability of matches from Latin America that dominates thoughts — though extremely late Eastern Time kickoffs such as the LA Derby or the Cascadia matches do appeal to them. A general sense is that matches on the west coast have a better appeal because of fan atmosphere. And quality of those teams drives interest. But if MLS has a late start time set to fit later TV windows or accommodate local fans, the potential viewership for these matchups is diminished. But it can be argued the Premier League deals with this regularly with many of the most appealing matches being aired during the early morning hours on the west coast.
It is also quite shocking the numbers the combined Turner and Univision viewership of UEFA Champions League gets relative to MLS considering the Champions League is a midweek, midday competition for American viewers. This is another indication MLS’ TV troubles are due to deeper causes than just when the matches take place and the prominence of American sports.
The response to the critiques by MLS fans and some in the US Soccer media generally is based on personal preferences or assumptions. The assumption that people are more likely to watch sporting events in the morning when no other sports are on than in the evening when others are on. Let me ask a frank question – when exactly do the viewers of the Premier League get to spend time with their families, go shopping, service their automobiles or handle the other errands associated with weekend lives for working people? Could it be that they have made a conscious choice to either push that to later in the day when traditional American sporting events take place or that they don’t watch as much of the Premier League or other European soccer as they possibly could because of the timing?
As MLS expands, it’s also convenient for the league’s proponents and defenders to claim the next bundled TV deal will be the “big one.” But to this point, expansion has only helped in certain markets. Seattle’s entry to the league in 2009 made MLS marginally a more attractive media property. The same can be said for Atlanta’s 2017 entry. But by and large, MLS expansion hasn’t moved the needle enough, even as second clubs were launched with great fanfare and on-field success in New York and Los Angeles — the nation’s two largest TV markets. TV ratings for MLS are not much different today than they were in the late 1990’s. While it is true that the newness factor of the league wore off in the 2000’s leading to lower ratings, the marginal increase in numbers in the last five years has helped MLS simply recover lost ground in spite of constant expansion. By contrast, Premier League numbers are far higher now on NBC’s family of networks than they ever were on FOX or ESPN networks.
MLS on TV suffers from multiple problems. Burnout for core soccer fans is one of the leading causes of sagging TV ratings particularly during the spring and fall months. When combined with the lack of compelling storylines, the shifting broadcast windows as well as the general poor targeting of soccer fans by MLS, it is no wonder they are struggling for ratings.
As MLS moves forward with its next TV deal and looking ahead towards the World Cup in 2026, they’d be well served to understand fan burnout and the preferences of general soccer fans rather than spinning and making excuses related to general American sports.