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.






Empty Seats at Copa America


This month, soccer is available to the average American soccer fan virtually all parts of the day with three European Cup games on in the morning and afternoon capped off by two Copa America games at night. It’s beautiful isn’t it? It makes you appreciate the ‘worldly’ aspect of the game. But does it provide too much convenience to the average fan? So much so that he or she would not get up off the couch and see a game in person?

As the first round of Copa America comes to a close tonight, and as the first round of Euro 2016 begins, a bit of an alarming trend has become apparent in the stands on this side of the pond. A significant number of seats are empty.

The story lines of the first round were not the problem. We witnessed a United States team with little expectations finish at the top of Group A. Colombia was handed a stunning 3-2 loss to Costa Rica setting up a potential matchup with a Brazil team that was even more stunned by a controversial goal at the hands of upstart Peru to be sent home after one measly round. We saw the spirited frustration of Luis Suarez as he could only watch from the sidelines as his countrymen from Uruguay would exit this tournament early as well. And of course, we saw Lionel Messi dazzle in the limelight with a hat trick despite entering the game as a second half substitute. In most of these cases, you could not ask for a better sequence of events.

The real problem could be a combination of factors. One could be the low expectations for this US team. In the past quarter century, the US has given the nation pride with spirited performances in the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil, possibly reaching a plateau with the heartfelt performance of Tim Howard against Belgium in the World Cup knockout round in 2014. But since 2014 most of the news surrounding the national team has been negative. They finished in fourth place on their home turf in the 2015 Gold Cup, a tournament they usually dominate. Small Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti were no longer easy matchups; the island nations were highly competitive, sometimes even better. The US had gradually ascended into a North American juggernaut from 1990 to 2014. Suddenly, all progress appeared to be lost. But here we are in 2016, and as usual, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has somehow lit a fire under this team again at the most unexpected moment.

Another factor could be the lack of star power. Before Brazil flamed out of the tournament in spectacular fashion, they were playing without the face of the squad, Neymar. Talented striker, and habitual opposition biter, Luis Suarez was injured or listed as injured in all three matches for Uruguay. Even Argentine sensation Lionel Messi was used as a substitute rather than a starter due to an injury he sustained before the tournament. You could call it bad timing, but without the stars to advertise, smaller nations like Panama, Haiti, and Venezuela have never been crowd pleasers. Unfortunately, Brazil and Uruguay’s eliminations in the group stages could continue to have an adverse attendance in the more meaningful knockout round matches.

A third factor could be these over-sized stadiums hosting games. The last Copa America in Chile averaged around 25,000 fans per game, and the previous Copa America in Argentina averaged just under 35,000 fans per game. After 20 games in this year’s tournament, the US average is significantly higher at just above 40,000, with some clear outliers. Despite statistically better turnouts, hosting games in 70,000 to 80,000 seat stadiums makes for a poor aesthetic.

And finally, the biggest factor could be TV coverage. Univision is reportedy averaging 2.8 million viewers per game while Fox Sports 1 is averaging just over 800,000 viewers per game. According to Nielsen Media Research, over 2 million viewers watched the US defeat Paraguay 1-0 to advance to the next round, the most watched men’s soccer match in Fox Sports One history. Yet on TV, you could see whole swathes of sections empty in the upper tiers of Lincoln Financial Field.

In all United States sporting events, going to the game has been marketed as an experience. An experience unlike sitting at home and watching on your TV. Instead of just seeing two century long rivals face off in a battle for glory, you could feel it. Live it. But at what cost?

The price of a TV subscription is relatively low compared to the price of a premium Copa America ticket. Currently on Stubhub, the cheapest ticket to the Copa America Centenario Final in East Rutherford, NJ two weeks from now is just over $300. For almost half that price, you could enjoy a month’s subscription to the cable provider of your choice with access to every game of the tournament on your TV, on your tablet, on your computer, and on your mobile phone at all times of day, alone or with friends and family in the comfortable confines of your home. With the right sound system, and with the right TV, the experience at home could be extravagant on its own. And with all the freedom available to you of watching the game anytime, anywhere, why on Earth would you trek through traffic and parking attendants to see Jamaica play Uruguay?

The organizers of this tournament have learned some unfortunate new realities about soccer in America. Just like with regular television, fans have choice now. The capacity crowds of the 1994 World Cup didn’t have a smartphone and live stream of the event in prime-time. The skeptical “wow me” fans of 2016 do. Unless Mexico plays the US in the final, the remaining tickets at MetLife Stadium have a poor chance of being sold at face value. Welcome to the new age of international soccer in America.


Univision leading the way in Copa America TV ratings with FOX Sports trailing behind



What Can Zlatan Do For You?


He has over 3.5 million Twitter fans.  He has over 14 million Instagram followers. Before he played his last game with PSG at Parc de Princes, he had this to say:

“I came like a king, left like a legend.”

Amazingly, this statement is quite accurate.  The club president even announced plans to name a stand after him upon his retirement. He is arguably the most interesting man in the world. In soccer, at least.  Oozing of Scandinavian confidence, and scoring goals like there is no tomorrow, the chance of having this publicity machine play on American soil should cause casual soccer fans to rejoice.  But what else could Zlatan moving to the U.S. possibly do to change the game here?

Major League Soccer could finally have it’s own counterpart to LeBron’s coverage on ESPN.  AND to top it off, he’s European.  Okay sure, you may be thinking so what? He has a reputation, a history of being temperamental off-field, an ego the size of Greenland, and his hair is an ever-changing piece of modern art.  Big deal, David Beckham fit most of those criteria and soccer still isn’t America’s favorite sport.  Very true.  But let’s take a look at the stats. David Beckham could kick a set piece like no other, and off the field he was a tabloid sensation.  But in his 6 seasons in MLS, he scored 18 goals, averaging just 3 goals a season.  Zlatan is a different story.  He isn’t just exciting to watch on set pieces.  This past season with PSG in league play, he scored 38 goals in 31 games.  He’s 34 years old.  While many could say MLS has held on to its less than admirable reputation as a retirement league, it’s hard to deny that Zlatan still has the right stuff to be considered one of the best in the world.

He’s played with Barcelona, Inter, Juventus, PSG, and now…Philadelphia? Probably not, especially if the man with an ego has conditions to coming here.  Early reports have reported that he would be coming to the LA Galaxy, as most stars from Europe appear to do, yet the Galaxy’s current stock of talent seems to have reached its limit, financially at least.  The team already has the maximum number of Designated Players allowed, so unless MLS somehow changes the rules to allow the Galaxy to become to American soccer what Glasgow Celtic is to Scotland, it seems another destination could be necessary if Zlatan is still interested in coming to America on the next plane.

How about New York? No, not New York City FC, they have already reached the maximum amount of Designated Players as well with Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and David Villa filling up plenty of cap space.  There is a team across the river with quite a bit less star power that could use a boost in the standings at the moment.

Yes, the Red Bulls have undergone a thorough restructuring process that most notably involved a philosophy shift from attracting aging European stars to building off of younger, more physical, homegrown talent.  Yes, this shift worked wonders last year as the Red Bulls coasted to a first place regular season finish despite an early exit from the playoffs. However, 11 games into the current season, the Red Bulls sit in 8th place out of 10 teams in the Eastern Conference, scoring a total of 13 goals in those 11 games.  Who has a reputation of scoring an unfathomable amount of goals?


The next step in the progress of MLS is to get more people to watch games on TV.  This guy is quality television.  Who could possibly be a better draw for soccer ratings in the U.S? Mario Balotelli, maybe.








What Does This Mean for Women’s Soccer in America?

uswnt1We won! The USA is #1 in women’s soccer for the first time in 16 years. And what a way to do it. The first 20 minutes of the game with an incredible hat trick from superstar midfielder Carli Lloyd was not only a magical moment for soccer fans, but also great television and great advertising for first-time soccer viewers. Monday morning conversations at offices across America were littered with “Wambach, 5-2, and 1999.” But in the end, what does this do for soccer in America?

Quite a bit actually. We saw a renewed excitement not just by girls but by boys who couldn’t care less if it was men or women playing. We saw new heroes, record TV numbers, and rising stars.  According to NPR, the United States/Japan final at its peak was viewed by 22.86 million viewers, the most watched soccer game in U.S television history, eclipsing the 2011 final by almost 15 million viewers.

Fox garnered approximately $17 million in ad revenue from the one match, and according to the Washington Post, the ratings for the U.S. women’s games averaged higher than both the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals. Univision even broke records with 1.27 million viewers of the Spanish language broadcast, making it the most watched women’s soccer game in the network’s history.

While these are tremendous feats, and huge steps for not just women’s soccer, but soccer as a whole in America, there are still important issues that need to be addressed when it comes to women’s sports.  According to multiple sources, including ESPN’s Randy Scott, the total winnings won by the World Champion U.S. Women’s Soccer team was $2,000,0000.  In comparison, the German team that won the men’s version of the FIFA World Cup last summer shared $35,000,000.  Some teams that lost in the first round earned $8,000,000.

The United States is currently the gold standard for women’s soccer. According to World Soccer Talk, while women’s soccer players in the National Women’s Soccer League can’t expect to make enough money to live on that salary alone, the talented athletes selected to represent the country can expect to realistically get by. Few stars like Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach can even expect to earn six to seven figures after sponsorships are taken into account.  If there is one thing we learned from this World Cup, it’s that progress has been made.  But there is still a long journey ahead before equality is reached.


USA-Japan Women’s World Cup Final smashes record for most watched soccer game in US history

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.