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 Women’s World Cup: Where is the Buzz?

img_6177_original-croppedThe 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada in less than 2 weeks.  Are you excited? If the answer is no, you probably fall in the majority of sports fans. But the marketing push leaves a lot to be desired. Women’s professional soccer has historically been a tough sell since the memorable U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup victory in 1999, and 2015 is no exception.

During last year’s FIFA Men’s World Cup, Nike and Adidas aggressively fought each other over ad space and staged media events to draw attention to new soccer jerseys and products.  It is very unlikely to expect this level of competition during this year’s event due to the lack of interest building around the competition.  Possibly the most publicity surrounding the tournament came from the controversial choice of colors to be worn by the U.S. Women’s National Team.  For the first time, the team will not be wearing a uniform that resembles the American flag.  Instead, the team will don white uniforms with hints of black, as well as neon green socks and cleats.  The topic was trending nationally for hours.

Fox Sports, the broadcast rights owner of this event has attempted to hype the games through a 100 day, $10 million dollar promotional push.  You can see the video that starts this push below.  The goal of the campaign is to convince viewers that the U.S. Men’s National Team has “passed the torch” to the U.S. Women’s National Team after their disappointing World Cup defeat to Belgium last year because “The U.S. has a score to settle.”

While a 6 venue tournament in Canada will almost definitely have a different feel on television to the surreal scenes we saw in Brazil during the Men’s World Cup, FOX Sports still sees the potential for great success.  5 out of the 16 matches to be aired on FOX will be aired during primetime, including the two group stage matches of the U.S. team.  29 games will be shown on FOX Sports 1.  Time will tell if viewers care about the tournament, and if the tournament can impact the success of the U.S. professional women’s league as expected.

According to SB Nation, the average attendance in 2014 for the National Women’s Soccer League (America’s top-tier women’s league) was 4,139.  If you subtract the exception to the rule, the Portland Thorns who average 13,362 fans per game, attendance decreases drastically to 2,986.  In fairness, the Seattle Sounders of MLS also help boost average attendance figures by acting as a clear outlier to the rest of the league.

Perhaps even worse news is that professional women’s soccer leagues in the United States have a history of folding after 3 years, first with the WUSA in 2003, followed by the WPS in 2011.  This year marks the fateful third year of operations for the NWSL.  As a result, success in this World Cup by the women’s team could be crucial for the existence of the league.  Star power from household names like Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach combined with a U.S. Women’s World Cup victory will need to equate to consistent attendance figures in NWSL games,  or the league might face the same repetitively grim fate of its predecessors.







Nike is releasing its US women’s soccer jerseys in men’s sizes for the first time ever

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.





Oh The Irony: MLS Gaining Popularity in Global Markets

robbiekeanevtorontoOver the past few weeks, MLS has announced multi-year deals with media outlets across the globe to have games be broadcasted outside of the United States and Canada.  While this was expected to happen as a result of Major League Soccer’s partnership with IMG, the entertainment and media licensing agency, the immediacy of these deals has been compelling.

First, the MLS signed a 4 year deal with Sky Sports and an additional deal with Eurosport, giving both European media companies the right to show MLS games every week, and expanding MLS’s reach into 52 European countries. Eurosport’s agreement allows for up to four games to be shown each weekend on their network. Below is the video from Sky Sports announcing the deal. Sky Sports Announcement

The league also agreed to a deal with Abu Dhabi Sports Channels based in the United Arab Emirates to show at least two MLS games a week, not including the All-Star Game and MLS Playoffs. The immediate effect of this deal will be MLS reaching 25 new countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Major League Soccer’s presence is clearly growing, and according to Sports Business Journal, the league has even more plans with media companies in Brazil, Latin and South America, and Asia to announce in the future.  Considering that MLS’s current TV deal with ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and UniMas calls for just 3 nationally televised games a week, these global deals shed light on how much work the league needs to do before it can match the fever and passion for the sport in other countries.