2016 MLS TV Ratings So Far

mlsWe 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.










The U.S.A. Could (And Should) Host Another World Cup

chile-copa_2706getty_875Last night the Copa America Centenario came to a close with Chile defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. This was almost an exact replica of Copa America 2015 when Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw.  The difference? The United States does it bigger, and does it better.

The predominately Argentine attendance last night in East Rutherford, New Jersey was reportedly over 82,000, a New Jersey soccer record. This comes on the heels of last week’s impressive crowd at the USA vs. Argentina semifinal in Houston, Texas that was reportedly over 70,000, a Houston soccer record.  For a country that has played host in the past to Pele, Ronaldinho, and David Beckham, there are many reasons for tournament organizers to be pleased right now.

The amount of records broken by this edition of Copa America cannot be ignored.  After last night’s final, the accumulated attendance of the 32 games played was just over 1.5 million, shattering a record held for over 25 years by over 350,000. In addition, the average attendance was nearly 46,000 fans per game, topping 5 of the last 9 World Cups (excluding the USA hosted World Cup in 1994).  Average attendance even topped the past 6 European championships despite an average ticket price of just over $100.  Using just attendance alone as a measuring stick, the U.S. has raised the bar as a host.

In terms of TV ratings, even more records were broken.  Not including the final, the first 30 matches of the Copa America Centenario drew over 100 million viewers in the U.S. from the combined broadcasts of Univision and Fox networks.  Univision reported that ratings for the tournament have been higher than average ratings for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  The USA vs. Argentina semifinal even drew 3.29 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, a network soccer record.  In terms of reach, the tournament has been broadcast in 160 countries, and 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. While the days until MLS reaches 1.5 billion viewers are still a long way off, competitive international soccer in the US has consistently proven to be record draw since the ’90s.

In short, the Copa America Centenario achieved every feat it intended and then some.  As Sunil Gulati accurately concluded, the United States Soccer Federation successfully proved that this country has the infrastructure, management system, and consumer base to thrive as an international soccer tournament host.  In many ways, the United States has everything that Brazil is missing for the Rio Olympics in less than two months.  Even with all the bribery and scandals that surround FIFA, it would be incredibly hard to avoid the potential money-making machine that the United States just displayed for a memorable, drama-filled, and lucrative three weeks.






2016 MLS Predictions

2015-08-05-impact-VS-NY-RedBull-CIMON-225--2The new season is already underway, and with it comes a lot of uncertainty.  Which team will surprise us the most? Can the Portland Timbers repeat their performance in 2015?  Will the LA Galaxy continue their dominance over the league? Will the Seattle Sounders finally win a well deserved title for their passionate fans?   But most importantly,  will the attendance and TV viewership continue to grow?

The most intriguing aspect of this season may be that the league won’t see any form of expansion.  In 2017,  we could see two, maybe even three new teams in Atlanta and Minnesota, possibly LA too, but for the time being, Major League Soccer remains at 20.  Since many other sports have not seen any form of expansion in the past decade, this may not seem like a big deal,  but for a league like MLS that generates a considerable amount of hype every time it grows, this temporary halt in growth could arguably affect the buzz it relies on for ticket sales.  The good news is the decrease will probably be negligible

The last time MLS came out of an expansion season without expanding again the following season was 2013, the year after the Montreal Impact became the league’s 19th franchise.  2012 was a record-setting year for MLS in total attendance with over 6,000,000 fans.  2013 only saw a decrease of 1.1%, but for a league built around growth, any move such as folding a failing franchise (ie. Chivas USA) or building a soccer specific stadium (ie. DC United) needs to be calculated with careful consideration.

But here are a few things we can reasonably expect, with a small margin of error:

Average attendance figures will increase every so slightly from 2015 numbers by the end of the year.  As usual, the first few weeks of MLS action will generate the biggest crowds, but over time attendance will fizzle.

NYCFC vs. NY Red Bulls will be bigger than ever.  The crowds last season were very ample, and combined with increased marketing buzz and better play by the Bronx sophomores rallying around a new coach, this could quickly become a ratings boon for the league almost as big as all three Cascadia rivals across the country.

TV Viewership will remain stagnant or very close to it.  Until MLS figures out a way to draw attention away from the British Premier League,  it will be awhile before American soccer sees its large payday from TV Networks in the same way that the NFL, NBA, MLB, and even the NHL see to a greater extent.

The star power express from overseas will continue to flow in like we saw in 2015.  Building off the buzz created by stars like Sebastian Giovinco, Giovanni Dos Santos,  Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, and Didier Drogba, we are already seeing slightly older stars like Ashley Cole and Antonio Nocerino travelling across the pond in 2016, and there is no reason to believe the trend will stop anytime soon.  The day an abundance of young stars from overseas want to play in the US is the day MLS can finally challenge the European juggernauts in England, Spain, and Germany.

Only time will tell what happens, but for the time being, kick back, relax, and enjoy the new season of soccer in America.



Attendance worries have quietly disappeared for Major League Soccer


MLS Cup: How Far Back Is The Futbol Championship from the Football Championship?

MLS-Cup-2015-imageIt’s a question you both want to ask and don’t want to ask at the same time.  Exactly how far back is the MLS Cup from its American football counterpart in terms of popularity? Without a doubt, the gap isn’t even close. But it would be nice to know what you’re up against when you face an upward climb, right?

Continue reading “MLS Cup: How Far Back Is The Futbol Championship from the Football Championship?”

Breaking Records

Getty Images
Getty Images

According to FOX Sports, the Friday Women’s World Cup clash between the U.S. Women’s National Team and Sweden drew an average of 4.5 million viewers, eclipsing the record for any soccer game every broadcasted by the network.  This is huge news not just for the women’s game, but also soccer as a whole as it continues to see an image boost in the United States.

The larger TV audience for this game was possibly helped by the pre-match drama created when former U.S coach, now Sweden coach Pia Sundhage made some insulting remarks about a few of her old players to the media.  Since the game ended in a 0-0 draw, both parties escaped with their reputations intact, at least temporarily, and the audience did not see any fireworks that might have been expected from these comments.  The crowds in Canada have also looked impressive, particularly from the presence of the American Outlaws  fan supporter organization in Winnipeg, where both U.S. games have been played. According to NPR before the World Cup, 700 members of the club were expected to make the trip north, but on TV, the overall turnout looks even better than expected with near sell-out crowds for both matches.

According to FOX and the Washington Post Soccer Insider, in addition to the record breaking average audience, the peak audience was 6.4 million viewers, and the top 5 markets for viewers were in Richmond, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Columbus, and St. Louis. The first match of the tournament for the U.S. drew 3.3 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, more than 3 times higher than the opening game for the team in 2011.  The next game for the U.S. is on a Tuesday night against Nigeria with less drama, so it will be intriguing to see if the number of viewers continue to increase.

According to FIFA, American TV audiences aren’t the only ones breaking  records.  In Canada, a record 1.8 million viewers tuned in to see their hosting team play the opening match, and in China 2.3 million viewers watched the same game, up from 1.3 million viewers in the highest watch game at the last World Cup in 2011.  As the Women’s World Cup continues, it will be very interesting to see just how many more records are broken.  FOX Sports should be very happy with the results and excited for the future as they own the English-language broadcast rights to all Men’s and Women’s FIFA World Cups in the U.S. through 2026.

The American crowd at the first group game in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The American crowd at the first group game in Winnipeg, Manitoba.



USA vs. Sweden: Score and Twitter Reaction from 2015 Women's Soccer World Cup



TV Ratings Status Update

rslA recent interview with Amy Rosenfeld of ESPN by reporters from Philly.com highlighted some key updates to the status of Major League Soccer’s TV ratings in 2015.  One of the most striking statistics was the average of 283,000 viewers per game.  This is an increase of 18% from the 2014 season that amassed 240,000 viewers across all ESPN networks.  While its figures were skewed by outliers such as the NYCFC vs. Orlando City inaugural match that drew 539,000 viewers, there are match-ups on the other end of the spectrum as well like the March 29th game between the Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire (two teams arguably without any tremendous star power and limited marketability at the moment)  drawing just 152,000 viewers on national TV.

The real reason to be optimistic about this season were the figures from Fox Sports 1 that report an average of 219,000 viewers per game watching the customary 7 pm Sunday national TV slot.  According to the article, this figure was up 54% from the average viewers per game of NBC Sports Network’s MLS programming in all 3 years of their agreement with the league. The highest average number of viewers per game during the past three years on NBCSN was just 142,000.

According to Rosenfeld, these figures are good signs for MLS heading into the summer, because this is the time period where MLS teams face less competition from other sports programming as the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the NBA Playoffs will come to an end in June.  Since this is just the first year of an 8 year contract, this season will act as a good gauge to see if the system can remain as it is or be tweaked for more success and relevance in the future.

In addition to national TV success, there was also positive news from Salt Lake City regarding the new local TV agreement between the Real Salt Lake franchise and KMYU.   Despite KMYU being harder to find on TV than Real Salt Lake’s previous TV network partners, the lowest rated of 3 locally televised games so far this season have drawn more viewers than than the highest rated games on last year’s networks.  One example of this success was the March 14th game that drew a 4.6 rating in the region equipped with 897,390 TVs  that Nielsen uses for estimates in the Salt Lake TV market.

If MLS sees future successes like these new findings from national TV stations and local TV stations, the positive image of the league can only grow larger.  Potential sponsors typically invest in a product with great promise of results, and seeing full stadiums on easily accessible TV stations could reasonably be the push MLS needs to finally stand tall next to the “Big Four” sports in America.




Are Local TV Deals Helping MLS?

martins-1024x576In sports, exposure for a franchise at its most basic level is achieved through advertising and television.   A recent article by the Sports Business Journal reported that many Major League Soccer teams are operating under new local television deals to broadcast their games.  Of the 20 teams in the league, 8 of them established new local agreements in accordance with the new national TV rights deal with ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and UniMas that all began this season. While the financial details weren’t disclosed, these new deals show a trend of increased production value of the broadcast and increased exposure of the teams in their surrounding regions.

As one example, the Real Salt Lake franchise plans to increase its footprint to 5.5 million homes across the surrounding region of Salt Lake City that includes Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, Idaho, and parts of Arizona thanks to its new deal with Sinclair Broadcasting.  The team currently reaches all 1.6 million homes across Utah, but this new deal will make games available in high definition and hopefully boost TV ratings.

This kind of exposure shows huge improvements for the league’s image not just nationally but in local communities.  According to an article by Grantland, shortly after the Sporting Kansas City franchise re-branded, the team reported an average local TV rating of 1.1 in 2012 in a Kansas City market of just over 1,000,000 homes which equates to 10,000 viewers.  That same season, the New York Red Bulls, who boasted star power with players such as Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, averaged a measly 0.3 rating on their local TV network, MSG, in a market where the broadcast was accessible to almost 8 million viewers, equating to about 30,000 viewers on average who watched the games on television.

The gold standard for MLS, as it has been in stadium attendance as well, appears to be the Seattle Sounders.  Around 2012, the team accrued a 2.5 rating for 5 games which adds up to almost 45,000 viewers per game.  For this current season, the team just announced a new TV deal that would air games on local Spanish language TV in addition to its already successful English language broadcasts.  The team’s games can be seen in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, proving the extent of the team’s reach.

If more Major League Soccer teams can not only find successful exposure as the Seattle Sounders have done, but also generate television audiences that compare to other teams in their market, more lucrative local TV deals could follow, which would foster more sponsorship and advertising revenue for these franchises.  Time will tell if Major League Soccer’s age old TV dilemma can finally be solved.