Major League Soccer – State of the League, a closer look Part II

In the first part of my closer look at the MLS State of the Union address, we took a look at the attendance numbers.  The reality of growth, tempered with the reality that many clubs still give away large numbers of tickets, resulting in a gap between announced attendance, paid attendance and actual attendance.  In the end there is good news for MLS on the attendance front, but many factors contribute to it.  There is another area, one that in the end might actually be more important than attendance numbers, which are the TV ratings for MLS which directly will control future TV revenue.

Here is what was said during the State of the League Address:

About national television partners:

We had a first and terrific year with our new broadcast partner NBC Sports.  They really took the quality of in-game TV soccer production to higher levels, great on air talent, great story telling, doing those things that NBC does very well and a great concept with Kyle Martino in the middle of the field providing color analysis.   We are excited about our new relationship with them.  Great promotion from NBC really increased our TV viewership. 

Our longstanding relationship with ESPN also increased our viewership.  The ESPN2 telecast of the Portland-Seattle game was the network’s third most watched regular season game ever.  Their viewership for the playoffs was up nearly 25% from last season.  They are great partners.  ESPN loves this game.  John Skipper, now their new chairman, is a big supporter and a good friend of all of ours and we are really looking forward to the next couple of years of our relationship with ESPN.

Lots of changes at Univision.  For those of you who don’t know, a gentleman from Mexico that has lots of experience from Televisa took over their sports division – Juan Carlos Rodriguez. We have got a longstanding relationship with Juan Carlos and he is very energized, looking to recommit to Major League Soccer, not just on their new sports network but also on TeleFutura and Galavisiόn.  They will be onsite doing lots of storytelling and lots of pregame shows for the first time with us, something we are very excited about.

Up in Canada TSN and RDS are bringing the MLS story to fans up north [and] for the last number of years, they have been great partners of ours. We are very excited about a relationship with them.

So let me say that Don is correct in a lot of what he said, and of course there is a lot here that is political mumbo jumbo.  So like we did with the attendance numbers, it is time to take a closer look at MLS and national TV.

Don Garber is 100% correct that NBC Sports did a great job with their broadcasts, I was very impressed by the match day coverage and I loved the MLS 360 series (something I hope they continue into 2013 and beyond).  I would love to see NBCS come up with a streaming solution like ESPN’s “Watch ESPN” app or website that allow fans to watch national broadcast matches either online or on mobile devices, it is the only thing I think that our new partner was lacking.

I tend to think that MLS is still an afterthought for ESPN, and to be honest given the numbers over the years, I can understand it.  I really don’t think that ESPN cares much about MLS to be honest other than it is some very cheap programming for them, they often do little other than an occasional teaser to promote the matches,  often MLS matches are given poor lead in programming (bad college football matches that always go long, or WNBA matches).

When I look at their latest app (built for Windows 8) to find soccer at all I have to go past the tiles for things like Tennis and Golf, and then it isn’t actually a part of the app like those others but just a link to their website (the same treatment given their coverage of Cricket, the WNBA, and Horse Racing).

ESPN's Windows 8 app

ESPN’s Windows 8 app

With ESPN losing their EPL rights going forward one of two things can happen, they can either embrace MLS and really put some effort behind it or, the more likely in my opinion, they can simply consider it the red-headed step child of their network (no offense Mr. Lalas).

I will be honest I don’t pay much attention to Univision or the coverage in Canada, I will allow others to voice their opinions on those topics.  I will remain focused on coverage in the US and for the most part that of our national TV partners, so let’s start with ESPN.

The report that ESPN’s numbers jumped in 2012 is correct, the average was 311,000 viewers, which was increase from the 292,000 average last year.  If you however look a bit closer it is just growth of 12,000 viewers per match from 2009 when the league averaged 299,000.  So over 4 years the growth was just under 4% or under 1% per year, now to me that is what I call anemic growth, when you consider that ESPN and ESPN2 each have a reach of over 100 million households.  So this great partner has seen little growth in number of people watching and their response over the last two years has been to show fewer matches, now just 20 actual league matches:

ESPN TV ratings

ESPN TV ratings


Of course the numbers I was given at the end of last year were that ESPN’s numbers were up to 311 last year, up from a 2010 total of 268, but those numbers may have included things like the All Star Match, which the tabled numbers don’t.

However to be transparent, we need to look at the entire picture that the 311,000 average equals out to somewhere between a .20 and .30 share (in 2009 that 299,000 equaled out to a .20 rating, so I expect the 12,000 increase is mighty small)

MLS TV Ratings on ESPN since 1996

MLS TV Ratings on ESPN since 1996

So what does that leave us with but the reality that MLS clearly hasn’t figured out the whole TV thing yet, we have seen the league focus on the large market teams but that is a move built around simple raw numbers as opposed to building up the overall viewing of MLS matches on a national basis.  To me this is an approach that both alienates a lot of fans who wonder why their team isn’t on TV and it really limits non-MLS city fans from having the chance to learn about the league and all the great teams and players by focusing on so few markets.

So what could MLS do that might get the overall national TV numbers up to a level that would give them the leverage they are looking for in 2014 when all the current MLS TV contracts will expire?  I am going to take a look at some of the more popular suggestions out there:

  1. More big name players are needed – Things like getting one big time superstar for each team can seem like a good solution, but the cost of a Beckham, Henry, Keane for each team would probably cost more that MLS can hope to get in this next round of TV rights, so I don’t think that is the answer.  Then of course there is the fact that since the arrival of the DP in MLS, and national TV’s focus on them, the overall numbers are flat with no real sign of growth.
  2. Promote the players that are already here – I thought that NBC Sports did a great job of that with the MLS 36 programs, but those are expensive (rumors of $100 K per episode).  I do believe that this holds a lot of potential, especially as more MLS players are featured as part of the USMNT.
  3. A weekly highlight show – This is a great idea, it could provide highlights of matches that fans haven’t seen, like those outside of their local market.  It could also really help with developing and promoting the players already in the league.
  4. A consistent time slot – This is perhaps one of the most logical suggestions, a couple of years ago ESPN featured a ton of matches on Thursday nights.  That time slot didn’t conflict with other matches being played, which should have allowed MLS fans to tune in, but that was given up on after a couple of years (things take some time to build habits) and now you just never know when a match will be on.  NBC Sports did a nice job featuring some early matches on Saturday, which allowed viewers to switch over from EPL matches and catch some MLS action before heading out to their local match.  I would love to see both offer a consistent time slot, we know that both national TV partners also cover college football so come August those Saturday mornings are gone to programming with better numbers.  How about we get NBC Sports to do a Friday night match at 8pm ET each week?  This wouldn’t conflict with most of the other league matches, it would allow viewers in all time zones access. I do think MLS does itself a disservice when they have matches on National TV at the same time as many fans are out supporting their local teams.
  5. A larger national footprint – While MLS HQ is firmly focused on NY2, the reality is that MLS has a lousy national footprint, with no team in the Southeast, no team in the Southwest and just 3 teams in the heartland of the nation.  I believe a 2nd team in New York is a good thing for MLS, but I don’t believe that it is something that should be the sole focus of the league as far as a growth strategy and that it should like other markets be left to free market forces to dictate.

I am not sure which or which combination might be the key to getting better national TV numbers but with a big chunk of the future of MLS tied to bigger and better TV deals, there is little time to figure this out.

I don’t have a crystal ball that can tell me what moves might work for MLS to get their TV numbers up on a national scale, we know that we need more of a national footprint of teams in order to get there, but that will take time and expansion into the Southeast, Southwest and then more presence in the Midwest as well.  Adding another team to the New York metro market won’t hurt, but I don’t believe it is a lone solution either.  I would love to see if both NBC Sports and ESPN would be willing to set up a standard time for matches ( I think one on Thursday evenings and one on Friday evenings) to allow fans a bit of consistency, then additional matches in other time slots if they are available.  One thing that I think helped NBC Sports with their NHL coverage was the pure volume of matches and while some teams still struggle to sell tickets or draw crowds to non-weekend matches, a balance between live and TV needs to be reached.

For me personally, I found myself more likely to watch National matches when they were early on Saturday, either just after the EPL matches ended or early enough that I could watch them and still have time to head out to the RSL match later that day. As a blogger I did my best to try to watch as many matches as I could live either at home of on a mobile device (I loved MLS’s streaming package that allowed me to watch on several platforms – I hope they keep and expand that going forward (X-box 360, hint, hint).  I was able to watch the ESPN matches on their mobile app, but NBC Sports was lacking in any streaming or mobile abilities this year.  The matches I couldn’t catch live I did my best to either DVR or watch them after the fact online.  I probably saw 75-80% of the MLS matches this year, which was a tough task but one that I was happy to do, in order to see as many of the teams as possible.  With the new schedule format, watching some teams online or on TV is the only way you get to see them for now, which is disappointing but something fans will have to learn to deal with.

The future of MLS is directly tied to TV revenue, it has been the explosion of TV money that has allowed the EPL, La Liga and other international league to reach new heights of quality on and off the pitch.  For MLS with stadiums most often built to hold 18-25,000 people the revenue from ticket sales is limited for most teams, sponsorships offer a great revenue stream but those too will grow if the national TV numbers grow.  When MLS is viewed by more people on national TV, everyone will benefit, as sponsors get more eyes on their brands, merchandise sales will go up as team brands become more established, ticket prices to live events will generate more revenue as the sport attracts more fans, and suites and corporate ticket holders will be drawn to the sport that already has a solid foothold in the rest of the world.

That’s How I See It.

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