We are currently three months into the MLS’s 21st season, on the heels of a successfully hosted Copa America Centenario, and now seems like as good as time as any to have a status report on how things are going. After all, if MLS was a living, breathing human being, it’s finally old enough to buy a beer now. Could this be a sign of more lucrative beer sponsorships to come? And can MLS finally get over the heavily coveted TV ratings hump that has been dogging the league for years?
Back in March, this year’s MLS opener featuring defending champion Portland Timbers and defending runner-up Columbus Crew on ESPN averaged 362,000 viewers. The following nationally televised matchup between Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting KC on FS1 averaged 267,000 viewers. Since both ESPN and FOX Sports are continuing a Sunday afternoon/night doubleheader that was put in place last year, comparing viewers becomes much easier. Last year’s MLS opener featuring Orlando City and NYCFC averaged 539,000 viewers, 33% higher than 2016. But last year’s New York Red Bulls vs. Sporting KC matchup on FS1 drew virtually the same amount of viewers as 2016. At best, these figures suggest that MLS has found a small but steady niche audience.
The “newness” element of having two expansion teams playing in their first ever competitive match was clearly a contributing factor to the higher than normal average viewership for the opening match in 2015. But MLS cannot keep expanding so that wow factor will soon become unavailable. Other factors such as star power, team loyalty, and must-see TV will be more paramount as the league moves toward this next phase in its history.
Perhaps less surprisingly, viewership for the plethora of international soccer that has been on TV this summer is significantly higher. ESPN has reported an average of 815,000 viewers per game as of the end of June for Euro 2016 in France. The Saturday quarterfinal match-up between Germany and Italy, two contingents with heavy fan bases in the U.S. drew over two million viewers and a 0.8 rating among the 18-49 demographic on ESPN. The Copa America broke TV records across the board in the tournament’s history. MLS was even able to capitalize on the Copa, albeit for one game by featuring a doubleheader on Univision after the third place match between the U.S. and Colombia. The following game between the San Jose Earthquakes and Los Angeles Galaxy was the largest TV audience for an MLS game since 2008, drawing an average of one million viewers. While piggybacking off the coattails of games that are popular to mainstream audiences is a brilliant way of exposing MLS to the masses, making sure the product on the field is exciting to watch is the best way of retaining higher percentages of those audiences for future games.
One source of inspiration for MLS could be the Icelandic national soccer team. It’s thrilling Cinderella performance in Euro 2016 captured the small nation by storm and an incredible 99.8% of Iceland’s TV viewers at the time witnessed the team’s final game in the quarterfinals against host nation France. The NFL by comparison drew around 70% of TV viewers in the 18-49 demographic for Super Bowl 50. Is there reason to believe an MLS game can draw the interest of 99.8% of American TV viewers? Absolutely not. But it proves once again just how important it is to have an exciting game to watch on the field.
On July 17, MLS will hope that its nationally televised Cascadia rivalry match-up between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers on FOX can pass the test to prove MLS Soccer deserves a steady position on broadcast TV, and not just cable. Based on the league’s current ratings performance that probably won’t happen. But one can dream, and the dream of MLS becoming a ratings monster lives on until it becomes a reality.