TV viewing numbers for the 2019 MLS regular season saw a dramatic decline compared to last year, so much so that the MLS TV ratings slumped 19% while the opening weekend of the MLS playoffs dropped 54%.
For the 2019 regular MLS season, viewership over the 62 televised broadcasts averaged 268,081 viewers according to research from World Soccer Talk. That compares to an average of 332,435 last year for the same number of games, marking a 19.35% decline in viewership across all MLS broadcasters combined — FS1, FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, Univision, UniMas and TUDN.
MLS fans may attribute the dramatic decline to the impact MLS games have with the World Cup as lead-in on the over-the-air FOX network. But when MLS broadcasts from over-the-air FOX are removed from the 2018 and 2019 data, the overall viewing average still dropped 9.4% from 2019 to 2018 (237,517 in 2019 compared to 262,161 in 2018).
While MLS TV ratings continue to decline year over year, the 2019 regular MLS season saw a greater average viewing audience on Spanish-language television than the English-language TV networks. Univision networks averaged 238,000 viewers for MLS games compared to 203,000 viewers on FOX Sports and ESPN combined. Having said that, MLS viewership on Univision networks dropped 17% in 2019 compared to 2018.
The downward trend of MLS TV ratings continues on FOX Sports where viewing numbers averaged 223,294 in 2019 compared to 235,581 in 2016, which is a 5.2% decline.
Any hopes of a TV ratings boost during the opening round of the MLS playoffs failed to materialize last weekend. Out of the six games featured on US television, the MLS playoffs averaged 177,500 viewers at a time when you would expect viewing numbers to skyrocket given the league’s fixation on using a format from traditional American sports. Average viewership for the 2018 MLS Playoffs Knockout Round was 390,750. The decline from 2019 to 2018? The average viewing audience plummeted 54.5 per cent.
How does MLS fix their TV ratings problem?
Analysis by Christopher Harris, Soccer media analyst
Unfortunately for MLS, there isn’t a quick fix to their declining TV ratings. The problems the league faces are systemic and would require seismic changes to alter the perception of the league’s lesser quality of play and inconsistent production value.
With the league focusing most of its efforts on generating expansion fees, signing new sponsors and increasing attendance numbers, Major League Soccer has taken “their foot off the pedal” and neglected the league’s TV partners. Instead of, just as one example, focusing on shifting the league’s calendar so the most important time of the season doesn’t conflict with NFL and college football, MLS carries on with a “business as usual” approach.
At the same time, MLS continues to increase the number of teams in the league which has the double impact of diluting the quality of American players across Major League Soccer while making the relatively meaningless regular season even less relevant. After all, when 58% of the teams make the playoffs, what’s the incentive to watch the league’s first five months when teams can go on a winning run in the late summer to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Nothing seems to change in MLS, and the issues with the league go unaddressed.
Another worrying concern is that MLS doesn’t have a solid foundation of hardcore fans who are interested in watching the league on national TV. MLS supporters are more likely to be casual fans, easily switching allegiances to NFL or college football teams when their MLS team isn’t playing. Even when it isn’t NFL or college football season, most MLS fans are disinterested in watching games from the rest of the league. Given that there’s so much of a focus on selling tickets to local games and the relatively poor quality of the league, it’s not surprising that fans of local MLS teams don’t have much interest in watching the rest of the league on television.
While the likelihood of promotion/relegation ever happening in MLS is a pipe dream given the league’s business model, the league needs to address how diluted the product is when you have 29 teams and growing. Ideally, the league needs to consider MLS1 and MLS2 leagues where the top 14 teams compete in the top flight league, and the remainder of the MLS2 teams play in the secondary league with chances to advance to the top tier. But knowing MLS executives, I don’t foresee the league changing anything anytime soon.
It’s more likely that the league will continue to expand until they have 20 teams in the Western Conference and 20 more in the Eastern Conference. Given that generating expansion fees is the number one goal for the league, it’s no wonder that TV ratings are unimportant to them. After all, when MLS TV rights are combined with the U.S. national teams as they have been for years, it means that MLS TV rights are subsidized by the US Soccer Federation. If the MLS rights were uncoupled from the U.S. national team contracts, MLS would then have to sink or swim, and to make serious changes.
To fix MLS TV ratings, fans will have a laundry list of ideas that they believe will help the league (setting up a more consistent TV schedule, TV networks need to advertise more, MLS needs better players, etcetera). However, none of these factors will help because the core structure of Major League Soccer is broken for two main reasons: (1) MLS games are not as competitive as other leagues because the champion is determined in a cup competition after five months of largely irrelevant league games. (2) The quality of soccer in the bottom half of MLS is poor because there’s no penalty or relegation and very little accountability for a team that plays badly in the league.
Meanwhile, soccer fans in the United States have access to better soccer from around the world that’s more accessible than MLS games. As a result, viewers are tuning out Major League Soccer and tuning into other leagues, clubs and competitions from around the world.