Ahead of a new MLS TV deal, more eyeballs are focused on the league. This time, though, it’s the eyeballs of executives at many of the top media companies who are evaluating the strength of the league. After all, Major League Soccer is on the precipice of what it hopes will be a new, landmark media rights deal. Gone are the days of earning TV revenue of $60 million per year. For the new deal that begins in 2023, MLS has set its sights on hitting revenue of $300 million for its media rights.

As media companies consider the promises of the new TV deal, they’re also looking at the current strength of the league. The best measurement tool for this has always the viewership numbers measured by Nielsen.

Big hopes ahead of a big weekend for MLS

If MLS and media executives ever wanted an ideal weekend to see what the TV ratings are, this past weekend was it. Heading into the weekend, MLS played all of its cards. Want a MLS game in primetime on a Saturday night immediately after a US Women’s National Team game? You got it on FOX. How about a southern derby between Charlotte and Atlanta, live on ABC? No problem. Add to that games across ESPN, FS1 and Univision for what was a big weekend for MLS.

Yet, the impressive viewing numbers never materialized.

Even with all of the advantages MLS has such as broadcasting games in primetime, being featured on over-the-air television and cherrypicking the teams that will play in these games, Major League Soccer is still unable to crack the 500,000 viewership milestone for the vast majority of its regular season games on English-language television.

To grow, MLS needs to change its league format

Major League Soccer faces several issues that are holding back its growth. In our opinion, the league has focused too much attention on awarding local expansion teams. At the same time, it has taken its eye off the ball at a national level, which can be seen by the lackluster viewing numbers for nationally televised games.

In its 27th season, MLS has still failed to change its regular season format. Most soccer fans are savvy enough to realize that the vast majority of games in the regular season are mostly meaningless. As the season drifts toward the race to qualify for the playoffs, interest picks up. But for the most part, there’s little reason to watch the first few months of every new MLS season other than to see the new expansion teams and their stadiums.

For media companies interested in acquiring the rights to MLS, such as Apple TV+, a largely irrelevant regular season is certainly a warning sign.

MLS needs to look south for a solution

A solution is staring Major League Soccer in the face, and that’s the Liga MX format. The Mexican league breaks its season into two, so you have a championship race for the opening half of the season. And that’s followed by a championship race for the second half of the season. Just like MLS, you crown your champions. Plus you have a playoff race.

Two examples of how little interest there is in regular season MLS games can be seen from this past weekend when you look at the games that weren’t on over-the-air television. Inter Miami against New England Revolution on ESPN had fewer viewers (252,000) than a relegation match between Burnley and Norwich City (296,000). Meanwhile, Sunday’s primetime game on FS1 between Austin FC and Minnesota United averaged 106,000 viewers.

Unless you’re a fan of Miami, New England, Austin or Minnesota, there’s no reason to watch these games. Even when games are on over-the-air FOX and ABC, Major League Soccer is not moving the needle. Yes, Leagues Cup is a new shiny object but it’s not going to help the regular season viewership.

Major League Soccer has many good things going for it. The quality of the league has improved. But its reluctancy to adopt a different format for the regular season is holding it back. Not only that, but it’s doing so at a time when the league needs to show viewership growth to prospective, new rights holders.