Major League Soccer has a TV ratings problem, and it’s named FOX Soccer.
During the penultimate weekend of the regular season when teams are typically fighting to finish in the top 4 seeds in the playoffs, you would expect FOX Sports to generate impressive viewing numbers for two vital games featuring clubs that are based in the top two TV markets in the country.
Instead, Sunday night’s double bill of New York Red Bulls versus DC United followed by Minnesota United against LAFC averaged just 81,500 fans on FS1. That’s despite FS1 being in 84 million households across the United States.
Both games (RBNY-DCU; 79,000 viewers and MNUFC-LAFC; 84,000 viewers) had points on the line with the Red Bulls and DC United fighting it out to see who would finish as the number 4 seed, while LAFC — in their game — were chasing a Supporters’ Shield trophy at the same time that the Loons were fighting to improve their chances of finishing as the number 2 through 4 seed.
This is the time of the season when MLS games should see a rise in viewership because the games are more meaningful. After all, MLS pundits such as Alexi Lalas have been trying to drive home the narrative of parity in MLS for years. But yet the numbers still are miniscule.
At the same time, MLS fans are quick to spit out their list of excuses why MLS sees its TV ratings crater in the fall (“NFL,” “college football,” “MLS games are on too late,” “MLS games are on too early,” etc).
Yet Sunday’s viewing numbers aren’t an isolated problem either.
Just two weeks prior, the MLS game between LA Galaxy and Sporting KC — another game with big playoff implications — averaged only 72,000 viewers on FS1.
These are pitiful numbers.
The trend of disappointing numbers continued during Major League Soccer’s recent Rivalry Week, when the two major English-language broadcasters (FOX and ESPN) showcased some of the league’s best talent and biggest rivalries in MLS.
While ESPN had some enviable games (in particular, the derby between Portland-Seattle), FOX Soccer televised the golden goose of the bunch — a highly anticipated clash between LAFC and LA Galaxy, a rivalry dubbed “El Trafico.”
This match had all the makings of an instant classic, and a match that casual and hardcore MLS fans would turn into. LAFC were running away with the Western Conference, and their Mexican forward Carlos Vela was the runaway favorite for Most Valuable Player. The Galaxy, the most successful team in MLS history, were firmly in the playoff picture, and had Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Enough said.
The match did not disappoint — a salivating 3-3 draw featuring goals from both Vela and Ibrahimovic, a result which FOX pundit Alexi Lalas dubbed “one of the great games in MLS history.”
And yet, FOX’s broadcast garnered only 217,000 viewers. That ranked lower than ESPN’s third (not first, or second, but third) highest rated broadcast of the weekend, a Friday night match between Orlando City and Atlanta United, which clocked in at 266,000 viewers. ESPN’s highest rated broadcast, between Portland and Seattle, blew FOX Sports out of the water, racking up an impressive 304,000 viewers.
MLS viewership as a whole may not be where the league wants it to be especially with the Premier League consistently breaking over a million viewers every weekend but the issue of viewership is even more dire for FOX.
Consider the circumstances. In the Rivalry Week, FOX had the marquee matchup, with the best team and two of the best players. The Galaxy are probably the most reputable franchise in MLS, and LAFC are certainly the highest flying at the moment. And yet, despite an on-field product that was truly exhilarating (I can’t disagree with Lalas, the game was magnificent), they fell well short of the standard set by ESPN.
Put simply, MLS has a TV ratings problem, and it’s FOX Soccer. The broadcaster continues to fall short of the standard set by ESPN, which is interesting considering MLS is their biggest point of emphasis when it comes to club soccer. FOX places their top talent (John Strong and Stu Holden) on marquee MLS games over their Bundesliga coverage, whereas ESPN puts emphasis on MLS as well as Serie A in addition to the abundance of other soccer leagues it has on ESPN+.
ESPN’s dominance in the ratings isn’t their only leg up on FOX. Tthe critical reception is also in Bristol’s favor. ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups were largely celebrated. Respected, reputable broadcasters such as Martin Tyler and Jon Champion were brought in, and the studio coverage anchored by Bob Ley was informative and organized.
FOX, on the other hand, were much maligned for their coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Strong and Holden, despite being experienced MLS broadcasters, at times lacked the experience and the skill to be the lead team of a World Cup broadcast. The same goes for JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola. FOX’s “America First” strategy towards last summer’s World Cup often left fans, myself included, disappointed that some of the biggest moments weren’t called by more reputable broadcasters.
FOX has certainly come a long way from the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final, where they actually ran a segment comparing “football” to American football” (which is, frankly, insulting to an audience that wanted genuine analysis of two of the premier teams in world soccer), but regardless, they continue to struggle in both the ratings and amongst public perception.
ESPN have plenty to offer for the soccer fan — tons of live games, ESPN FC broadcast daily, informative YouTube spots, and respected commentators. FOX Sports have … Alexi Lalas? Rob Stone?
FOX Soccer continues to invest in soccer, having broadcast the last men’s and women’s World Cup, as well as the rights to the next World Cups in 2022 and 2026. However, their stance on broadcasting (focusing on American talent and on the American product) has not paid dividends, as they continue to lag behind ESPN.
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