Analysis

Generational change needed for MLS ratings to improve

Another week, and another series of tweets about Major League Soccer’s faltering ratings:

With this type of performance, it’s any wonder why we can’t find a CONCACAF Champions League match on our local cable networks.

And in a few weeks, barely anyone will be able to watch the Philadelphia Union host the Seattle Sounders in the US Open Cup, unless they’re at PPL Park. That game will be broadcast on GolTV, a lasting relic of what used to be soccer coverage in America.

What will it take to see MLS (and domestic soccer) improve in the Nielsens? I think the only hope is a generational step change in the way the sport is consumed.

Domestic soccer fails to prove itself on the tube

There is still the perception among many in the US that soccer only matters during the World Cup. Television ratings reflect this, as MLS matches under-perform consistently even when it’s the important MLS Cup Playoffs.

Hopefully the new television deals that MLS puts into effect in 2015 will standardize television times. That’s one part of the battle.

Unfortunately, another part is distribution. The departure from NBC Sports doesn’t help this fact, especially if FOX has any intentions to make Fox Sports 2 its primary MLS channel. From a Philly soccer fan’s perspective, with Comcast as a major distributor in the area, FS2 is not on the system in any form. Maybe MLS’s presence will instigate the carriage of FS2 on Comcast, but I’m not holding my breath.

Segmented nature of MLS hurts ratings vs EPL

The English Premier League gets a solid rating when showing top teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool. Fortunately for the EPL, support for these teams is not geographically tied, so a wide network of fans from across the US tune in on Saturdays and Sundays to contribute to the numbers.

The MLS fanbase is not as pervasive outside of the major metro areas where its individual teams are found. How many people in Chicago care about the Seattle Sounders when they are on NBC Sports Network? Sure, there are Clint Dempsey fans who will tune in, but it’s not the kind of “must see TV” that makes neutrals (i.e. other team’s supporters) tune in with anything approaching the numbersof the country’s other major professional team sports.

It is deflating when you finally realize that national coverage of MLS will struggle to gain viewers, unless standardized time slots make that much of a difference. And while it won’t hurt, I’m not entirely convinced it will double or triple viewership (which would begin to sniff where EPL ratings locate on the chart).

What can MLS do?

This is a situation that needs to build towards the future, but it also needs to stem from a generational change in attitude towards the sport. Sunday afternoons in the fall didn’t always automatically equate to NFL football, this was something that was built over time. Bob Costas and Brent Musberger as the faces in the studio, Dick Enberg and Pat Summerall as the brilliant play-by-play voices, flanked by Merlin Olsen and John Madden as lovable, knowledgeable play-by-play artists — growing up, that was Sunday afternoon for me.

Don Garber should know full well about this, being a former NFL executive and all.

Major League Soccer’s success on TV can develop from this kind of mentality — trying to instill into each successive generation of youth in this country that MLS broadcasts are worth building the weekend around.

Maybe it takes a Gus Johnson, a fellow that is recognizable to many general sports fans. I’ve never pulled punches about Johnson, and his knowledge of the game must make some significant leaps to grow from sounding like a guy rattling off some stat lines off a press packet.

One thing that MLS lacks is a consistent studio show. Alexi Lalas is often a part of ESPN’s coverage, but it could also be anyone from Max Bretos to another anchor who drew the short straw. NBC has used Russ Thaler, but that too changes from match to match.

MLS’s national coverage isn’t horrible, but the bar must be raised. Organization and significant intentional strides are necessary to gaining market share in the long-term. Going to NBC was supposed to be one move in that direction, but that may be undone if FOX fails to gain distribution for FS2. That would be a major setback in growing viewership for the league.

17 Comments

  1. james lockerbie says:

    I believe it was part of the new tv contract that espn/ fox had to have a dedicated evening for mls games.

    ~
    I also liked it when Lalas urged fans of the National team to support their local M.L.S teams, that’s assuming the fans of the National team were actually watching the all star game.

    • Yes, my understanding is that next year they are going for all the national TV games to be on Sunday at 5pm and 7pm ET.

  2. Half of the reason why I personally don’t tune in to the west coast games is the time difference. For this one, it wasn’t a huge deal, being in the afternoon, but for the fairly regular Sunday night games, I don’t wanna stay up until 1 am watching two teams I’m not rooting for.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think MLS has the best chance to out do the MLB… with that said, I wonder how well out of market MLB teams do, with the exception of the Yankees and Red Sox (who I would compare to Man City, Man U, etc). Like, do the Seattle Mariners draw well in the midwest? Do the Pirates draw well in the south?
    .
    Trying to out do or comparing the ratings to throwball (the NFL) will always make the MLS look not just bad, but terrible.
    .
    Let’s see where we are after this new TV deal gets started, and the players and the MLS sign a new collective bargaining agreement. If by the end of these contracts the MLS hasn’t moved forward, then we will know we have peaked as a league.

  4. Actually, I think that 183k for MLS is pretty good considering how well the BPL is doing. Ultimately soccer fans want to watch high quality soccer, so I’m unlikely to watch anyone other than the Union unless I think there’s a chance for a fun match or to see a star player. As the product on the field improves, the numbers will follow.
    .
    MLS should push their MLS Insider and MLS 36 shows more. They are really well produced and have a decent chance of getting casual observers interested in the storylines and personalities that make sports compelling. It’s a shame that NBCSN didn’t pick up those shows again this season. Apparently NBCSN did just pick up Men In Blazers – those guys do enjoy some MLS, so the more we tweet them about it, the better the chance is that they will talk up MLS.

  5. Better quality football needed for MLS ratings to improve

    [fixed]

    • old soccer coach says:

      This Friend speaks my mind. My wife will watch the very best teams on the world, the rest, not unless there’s a specific reason. Americans recognize quality, and its lack. The generational change is the development in the next ones of world class creative and attacking players.

  6. The Chopper says:

    With the money spent by ESPN and FOX for the new MLS rights package, one can expect those networks to do everything they can to try and grow the audience. So yes, standardizes times, solid consistent broadcast crews will likely be part of the equation.

    That being said, they face an uphill battle. There are better soccer products all over the airwaves. Every other American Sports League on TV has the distinct advantage of being the highest level of that sport played on the planet. There is no viable on air competition for the NFL, NBA and MLB.

    You don’t see nationally televised minor league baseball and hockey. MLS may be our top soccer league, but it is minor league. It may take several generations for American sports fans to adapt to that kind of change. That is a big shift in the American psyche.

    Right now MLS is attendance driven. Support your local club. You develop a passion for your club, you will watch that club on TV. But few fans really care to watch the rest of the league. The NHL has the same problem and that’s the best hockey there is. The NBA gets great post season numbers, but unless it’s LeBron, the regular season national TV ratings are so so. MLB has the same problem which is why the Yankees and Red Sox are on every night. Only the NFL has consistently strong ratings for regular season games where most fans do not have a local rooting interest.

    I doubt MLS has a major TV impact in my lifetime. Unless there is a financial sea change and we attempt to be on a level with the top tier leagues.

    • Gasoline Fight says:

      Great points, Chopper. The NFL really is the only American league not needing to increase its out-of-market viewership.

  7. Paul Goings says:

    I often watch whatever EPL matches are on, and occasionally a match from one of the other European leagues. But, apart from the Union, I watch very little MLS. I sort of wish I watched more, but it doesn’t seem to hold my attention the way the EPL does.

    • Same here

      • The meditation that is futbol at its best doesn’t occur here yet- Too choppy. To rush rush. To panicky.
        .
        For me that is the reason I don’t view beyond the Union.

    • same here. i’ve made efforts to watch more but it’s when i’m looking for a match at a convenient viewing time rather than knowing there’s a match on every wed, on this channel, at this time. that structure would allow me watch more and introduce me to players and clubs i don’t usually watch.

  8. Comcast doesn’t have Fox Sports 2?

    Strange. I’ve watched matches on Fox Sports 2 through my Xfinity package.

  9. I think there are a bunch of things going on that will make it hard for Soccer to catch on. (sorry for this long post)

    1. The big 4 pro sports we have — MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA, grew prominent well before Cable TV. When I was a kid, I could watch baseball all the time. It was unavoidable. The NFL is still this way. Try turning a TV on any Sunday and stumble across an NFL game. To watch soccer, you have to want to watch it, with the only exception being the three games broadcast on ABC this season. Both were Saturday afternoon games — not prime time for viewing.

    2. MLS is ignored in mainstream sports media. Ever hear the Union talked about on sports radio in Philadelphia? Did they get a mention for beating Dallas and securing a trip to the Open Cup finals? Other than “The 90th Minute” — a one hour show among two stations in one week — the answer is no. I understand that these stations need to cater to an audience that never tires of discussing football and can pick apart a pre-season result for 73 hours straight, but why would so-called sports journalists/generalists not take time to open the conversation up a little? To me this is a self perpetuating problem: Sports talk radio won’t talk about soccer because it’s not popular though if it did talk about it, the sport would probably gain some recognition.

    3. Soccer needs some good stories. LeBron James is a good story. Last story of similar power for MLS was when DC United signed a 14-year-old Freddy Adu. There were pretty good opportunities in the world cup with many of the US Team’s heroes going home to play for MLS clubs, but there weren’t any feel good, personal stories that would get the nation excited. If Mo’ne Davis was competing for a soccer league title on a boys team, maybe that would have gotten some attention… Soccer has a lot of opportunity here because, like basketball, the players are easy to identify (not wearing helmets/pads, etc.) That human angle would help.

    All that said, I’m bullish on MLS. I think it’s a sound investment (if I had any money to invest, that is). There are signs that a generational shift is taking place. That ESPN poll found more teenagers identified with MLS as a “favorite league” than MLB, NHL or NASCAR. That’s pretty significant. Also significant is that the source of a lot of that attention with that age group comes from EA games like FIFA ’14…. I think the sport will keep growing and play will get better.

    MLS’ best days are still ahead of it.

  10. I find it a mistake to put soccer’s success as a matter of if-and-when the league overtakes another major sport or league. Soccer is not only behind the NFL,MLB,NBA,NHL, but also college football, college basketball, televised Nascar, golf, MMA—both in TV ratings and how socially ingrained those events are in the country.

    Soccer has become what women’s gymnastics, figure skating, or swimming means to this country very four years. They get all-out attention for a couple weeks and then disappear but for the loyal follower. In over three decades these sports have not gained as a major sport of interest. And the MLS is only harming itself thinking soccer will be the exception and will actually grab and hold the casual viewer.

    MLS should focus primarily on how to make the domestic league the number option for the domestic fan. You have to make domestic soccer fans like your product over and above other leagues. You’d have tens of millions as base there alone, from whichyou can then grow the sport. Expanding the league to 22 teams and diluting already lacking talent is not going to help.

  11. MLS is a fake league, with fake teams. You may as well ask why I don’t watch WWE wrestling.

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