MLS Ratings Drift

Jay Bell on what MLS needs to get some eyeballs

“Give me consistency or give me death.” – The new battle cry of MLS viewers.

MLS - Stretching to get any ratings points...

MLS – Stretching to get any ratings points…

The second half of the 2013 Major League Soccer season has seen the arrival of Clint Dempsey, more homegrown players and more Designated Players – giving every MLS team a DP for the first time in league history. The Los Angeles Galaxy also re-upped with one of the league’s top stars, Omar Gonzalez, and Landon Donovan, still the face of MLS.

The middle third of the season also saw the announcement of the 20th MLS team, New York City FC, with the uber-richness of Manchester City owner, Sheikh Mansour, and the political influence of the New York Yankees. David Beckham and Marcelo Claure were checking out Miami, though news has cooled on that front, and Orlando looks all but certain to secure a spot in MLS when a stadium announcement is finally made.

Despite all of the improvements on and off the field in MLS, more sobering news came this past week to further illuminate the league’s most glaring and substantial problem (yes, even worse than Jorge Vergara, sorry Chivas USA fans): national broadcast ratings.

MLS finished the last two seasons with David Beckham with averages of over 300,000 viewers per match on ESPN broadcasts. NBC Sports Network’s first year of league broadcasts finished with a decent average of 125,000 in 2012. Viewership on ESPN has dropped by 27 percent in 2013 and 20 percent on NBCSN.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why.

ESPN has focused its broadcasts on Sundays this year. There have been 16 MLS games broadcast on Sundays this year that have started at nine different times. There is no one time where an MLS, soccer or random sports fan can say, “I’ll sit down at __ o’clock and watch the MLS game.” Plus, those 16 Sunday games have been spaced out over 28 weeks so far.

It would be incredibly difficult to be any more inconsistent. At least for four straight weeks in September and October we get an MLS game at 9 p.m. eastern time each Sunday.

The most popular international tournaments – World Cup, European Championship, Olympics – are in even-numbered years, leaving MLS without helpful lead-ins this season. All ESPN had was a US-less and Mexico-less Confederations Cup (yes, I know Mexico was physically there, but were they really there?). I doubt Fox’s coverage of the Gold Cup “B” tournament helped ESPN or NBC at all since they mainly scheduled around it.

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The drop on NBCSN has bee more disappointing because of the network’s stellar production, frequent advertisements and additional attention to the league, such as MLS 36. Unfortunately, start times have been just as infrequent, ranging from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.

And what is with the late start times? This isn’t Spain. I love that NBCSN is testing the waters on Friday nights and I know sports viewers are more likely to be up later on Fridays and Saturdays, but 10 of their broadcasts have been at 8 p.m. ET or later. Five of ESPN’s Sunday broadcasts have been at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. ET. What did we get, about 19 people east of the Mississippi to watch those games?

If Fox Sports 1 decides to broadcast a game between Washington State and USC at 10 p.m. ET, you know they’re not aiming for viewers in New York. Soccer isn’t college football and MLS isn’t the Pac 12. As stellar as attendance and excitement has been for teams on the west coast, MLS needs New York viewers and it needs the east coast.

Then there is congestion. MLS already has to fight against the NFL, college football, NBA, college basketball, MLB, NHL and NASCAR viewing times. It also has to fight against interest for the UEFA Champions League, English Premier League, Liga MX and other leagues and super clubs around the world.

So why is MLS competing against itself and the rest of American soccer? League broadcasts are scheduled at the start of each season with seemingly zero regard for the rest of the MLS schedule, let alone the likes of the US national team, the USWNT, NWSL, NASL and USL Pro.

Take a recent and exciting Saturday match between Seattle and Chicago at CenturyLink Field. The game itself had a great atmosphere and an announced attendance of 38,503. The game began at the same time as two other MLS matches. Two other MLS matches began an hour and a half earlier. That’s roughly 75,000 potential viewers that are at least more likely to add viewers than the general population. Another 20,000 were in Orlando to watch Orlando City win a thrilling USL Pro championship. There’s no telling how many other interested parties from Charlotte and the rest of the country were following that match instead of the lone national broadcast that evening.

It is not possible to schedule broadcasts that will always avoid overlapping with other soccer matches in the US and Canada, but it could definitely be scheduled smarter than it was Saturday night. Those types of situations are also going to be completely unavoidable when all broadcasts are scheduled 10 months ahead of time.

If MLS and its broadcast partners would finally maximize their viewing potential in the current settings, then they would be able to bring in more revenue. That revenue can then be spent in ways to grow the viewership in new ways. The current formula is stagnant at best.

Current ratings on their own would suggest that MLS has little hope to increase the value of its broadcast partnerships when the current contracts expire after the 2014 season, but MLS does have a surprising amount of leverage going into the new round of negotiations.

Mayor Bloomberg is ... sad.

Mayor Bloomberg is … sad.

The league’s power play is the introduction of New York City FC. A club that will play its matches in actual New York City is a boon for MLS, although the amount of time it stays at Yankee Stadium could become detrimental. The league is also guaranteed to be telling network executives that Miami is on its way into the league. Potential teams in Miami and Orlando would get MLS back into Florida and into the southeast (kind of), adding a region of televisions MLS has been largely without for most of its history.

MLS has some leverage with the networks too, but not enough to garner huge increases in the value of those deals.

Major League Soccer will be ESPN’s lone holdover of its longtime interest in soccer. The company has lost rights to the EPL, Champions League and the World Cup over the last year. Any long-term interest in soccer will have to be built around MLS and the US national teams. US rosters now boast a proud number of MLS stars, more than it has in years. Without MLS, all of the highlights and discussion on ESPN FC will be about leagues and players that viewers can only watch on other channels.

It is not guaranteed that NBC will submit a bid for the next deals, but if it does, the network will likely be competing with Fox and BeIN Sport.

Fox’s coverage of MLS seemed to get worse over the years and it never gave the league the love that NBC has, but the company stole ESPN’s thunder by swooping in for World Cup and Champions League rights. ESPN was left with its precious EPL, but NBC took that too. Rights to MLS can help NBC build its soccer interest, even if still only slightly.

BeIN has gobbled up the rights to several leagues, begrudgingly to many American soccer fans because of its ever-so-slowly increasing availability to American viewers. But you can bet the rights to MLS would get the channel in more households quickly.

One of the three will make MLS a decent offer and win the rights. I can’t see how any would be negative for the league’s fans because they all have their upsides and would have an interest in the league. FC Dallas’ Dan Hunt said that negotiations for the next round of deals (NOT in 2014, but after the 2014 deals expire) could be life-changing. So we likely won’t see major changes in 2015, except maybe its own half hour show on one of the channels.

There are four clear-cut methods MLS should go about improving its broadcast ratings. The networks are in charge of the broadcasts, but its up to MLS to maximize the value of its product. The first four steps they need to take are:

1) Build consistent scheduling

2) Institute flex scheduling

3) Claim a holiday

4) Fill in the gaps.

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1) Consistency is absolutely key, another notion Hunt echoed.

Hunt for FCD.

Hunt for FCD.

MLS needs to carve out its own time slots and stick to them. What sense does it make to have such random start times? The first step is to stake a claim on certain days for national broadcasts. Local stations can broadcast games on other days. By currently catering to everybody by scheduling broadcasts for all different days at all different times, it is actually catering to no one.

Sports viewers know with absolutely certainty that from September through November, college football starts at noon (all times eastern), 3:30 p.m. and somewhere around 7-8:30 p.m. every Saturday. They know that the NFL starts at 1, 4 and 7:30 on Sunday. Then there is Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football. The list goes on: MLB on Sunday night, NBA on Sunday and Wednesday, college basketball on Tuesday, NASCAR on Sunday afternoons, etc.

Notice how none of these times are leaving games trudging on after 11 p.m., save for some long-running NFL and MLB games.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I am a huge proponent of going after Friday night. Friday is where network television shows go to die, but your average MLS viewer isn’t your average network TV viewer. Stake a claim on Friday and schedule games at the same time every week. They can broadcast a double header at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. or just go with a single game at 7, but start it and stick to it. MLS viewers can watch a match Friday night and still have time to go out, that is unless MLS insists on continuing to have broadcasts that start at 10 p.m. or later.

The best time to capitalize on Saturday viewers is to schedule it immediately after that morning’s EPL matches, whether it is on the same channel or not. You’ll have the same viewers looking to find the game and fans of other games won’t be leaving the house yet for their club’s match. Games should start at 2:30 p.m., no later than 3, every single Saturday.

Consistency also means a larger commitment. Scheduling needs to be every week, not 16 games in 28 weeks. It may mean less money per match for MLS, but it would be more beneficial to grow the numbers. Same time, each week, same network. It worked for Batman. It will work for MLS.

2) Institute flex scheduling

MLS is not the NFL and its not MLB. It can’t just show random matchups and expect the same ratings. Better games and more interesting clubs garner higher ratings. The full quality of those matchups cannot be known 10 months ahead of time. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of college football fans wait every week to find out if one of their team’s upcoming games will be picked up by a network and start at a different time than previously listed. MLS clubs are fully capable of working with their fans.

I know MLS and its owners/investors want to get all of their teams on TV, but it does no one any good to show two bad teams playing bad in October. Remember that DC/Chivas match? Ugh.

Obviously every team should get their broadcasts, but flex scheduling can still highlight which games are more likely to be of higher quality. Networks can see which players are going to be out for international play or due to injuries. Still, you know its not fair or efficient to have Real Salt Lake on national television three times the entire season. That’s ridiculous enough on its own right as good of an advertisement for MLS as RSL and its fans are.

3) Claim a holiday

The NFL claimed Thanksgiving and the NBA claimed Christmas day. Christmas was so important that the NBA and the players sped up negotiations and (unfortunately) preparations for the start of the 2011-2012 season. College football was traditionally centered around the New Year’s Day bowls, but money has warped that landscape.

The biggest holidays available to MLS teams are Independence Day and Easter. Trying to have a ton of games on Easter might not work out great, while marketing for other holidays like Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Halloween, etc. likely wouldn’t be very fruitful.

My nomination is for Independence Day, where each home team can have their own fireworks show every year.

4) Fill in the gaps.

There are a lot of gaps in sports throughout the year, especially for a few months in between the NBA and NFL seasons. MLS could do a better job of finding ways to be more relevant during that time period.

And for the love of all that is holy, can MLS please own the day after the MLB All-Star game, aka the most barren sports day of the entire calendar year. Even “pundits” (couldn’t make myself type “experts) on Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn would be willing to talk about soccer for a few minutes on that day every year.

We have ample evidence that MLS broadcast methods are not working. The league faces competition from leagues around the world in a challenge that other American sports leagues simply don’t face, but that is always going to be part of the deal.

Changes must be made now or else the league and its partners are going to risk the ratings floundering to the point to where the broadcasts are not even financially worth the costs.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. good post! thank you…

    Reply

  2. Posted by nb on 2013/09/16 at 6:40 AM

    What about a full afternoon of MLS match’s on the day after the MLB all star game. That is the least utilized live sporting day of the year and in the heart of the MLS schedule. It would be a midweek game for each team, but no college sports, no nascar, no NFL, and everyone in MLB gets the day off. I would think you could at least put a couple of games on that evening and possibly have more during the day.

    Thoughts?

    Reply

  3. Posted by nb on 2013/09/16 at 6:44 AM

    please take that last post off the interweb! I stopped reading the article right before you said the same thing! Epic Fail!

    Reply

  4. Posted by dfstell on 2013/09/16 at 6:55 AM

    There are a number of things that hold back my own viewership.

    1). No local team. I have local teams that I follow, they’re just not in MLS. I have season tickets at my USL-PDL team and a ticket package with my NASL club (~2 hours away). That NASL club is currently tied for first in their season. If we had a promotion/relegation model, I would actually care about more MLS games because my club might be playing Toronto or Chivas next season.

    2). MLS is a TV only league. As I said above, I have no local MLS club. Thus it is nothing but a TV product for me. I kinda enjoy watching the Galaxy play, but I’m on the East coast and those 10:30 start times make it a little daunting.

    3). Competition for TV eyeballs. Once you reduce MLS to “soccer on TV” it is nothing but an inferior product. I can watch EPL coverage until my eyes bleed and then I can watch German/Spanish/French/Italian football until my eyes actually fall out of my head. The quality of an MLS game just isn’t “there” to the point that I can watch it as a neutral observer.

    4). Not enough consistency. I know that some fans LOVE how competitive MLS is. I categorically DO NOT like a league where San Jose wins the Supporter’s Shield one season and probably misses the playoffs the next. If you want to televise the product nationally, you have to have iconic teams that appeal to a national fanbase. You need Yankees and Lakers and Celtics who are just better than everyone else because they have more money. Look at how rating dip for MLB anytime the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t in the playoffs.

    I really think what MLS should continue to focus on is the local markets. THAT is the one thing they can offer than nobody else can touch. I can be a huge Manchester United fan, but I can’t really go to see live soccer at Old Trafford. So, develop that season ticket base and develop the local TV packages. I just don’t see MLS as a national property yet and it won’t be until the quality on the field is better than the alternatives.

    I also like your idea of focusing on a July 4th blow-out. I tend to watch MLS more in the summer because it is the only league on TV. Take advantage of that summer break for the European leagues!

    Reply

    • Posted by Bmullis on 2013/09/16 at 1:19 PM

      +1 on the promotion/relegation model for MLS. Though I’m sure the reasons it won’t happen are legion, it would be awesome.

      Reply

      • Not so much reasons it won’t happen, but conditions under which pro/rel must happen, and some of those are daunting. For one, a balanced schedule. That means each team plays each other team home and away. There goes the cash cow of 4 Portland/Seattle matches per year. That’ll now happen twice. Which leads to… virtual single table. They’re not going to relegate one East one West team. Or maybe they play them off to avoid the drop. How’d you like to play USL next year because your rel match against a team you finished 12 points above gets Marrufo’ed?

        I say bring that ALL on. Orlando’s been winning league after league and their inevitable promotion to MLS would finally make this a national league. That includes the American South. We don’t all say foobaw, and none of us got a fair shot with the Fusion/Mutiny experiment.

        Reply

    • Posted by CJ on 2013/09/16 at 5:31 PM

      I think one of the elements you’re overlooking by solely focusing on the quality of the product from the perspective of skill level is that players in europe have little connection to here. By participating in the cultivation of this league as a viewer, you get many benefits including the possibility of watching kids from your hometown or nearby college or maybe even your own kids someday working their way into MLS because it is so much more tangible than overseas. You have to be an amazing talent here to make it overseas and it’s usually after a show in MLS in the first place.

      The quality of the MLS game can be measured by more than just the minimum skill level of its players. When you went to your local highschool and were cheering on your team at homecoming that wasn’t based upon the idea that they were the best team in the world in that particular sport, it was that you had an emotional connection to the game. THAT should be MLS’ focus on gaining viewers.

      Reply

      • Posted by CJ on 2013/09/16 at 5:33 PM

        Did I say “that” enough? No wonder my English teachers always gave me poor marks, haha.

        Reply

  5. Posted by Steve Davis on 2013/09/16 at 8:22 AM

    This is brilliant all around. There are lots of little points in here worth having a healthy debate about, but overall this is spot on.

    You know how all the other leagues (ESPECIALLY the NFL) have mastered the tactic of finding a way to put themselves at the top of Sportscenter about 12 other times between their seasons? Schedule release, combine day, draft coverage, etc. (NBA Is also great at this under Stern.) That’s the kind of coherent tactical strategy that’s required; one that feels completely absent from MLS. We can’t go toe to toe all the time, but if there are days and periods that are devoid of major sports or news, MLS should be OWNING those days. (What about Labor Day?)

    It’s just maddening when it seems that the folks calling the shots seem to be oblivious to these sorts of things — MLS Cup almost during the SEC championship last year was comical — and roll on ahead missing great opportunities to build a following and showcase the sport. Other than keeping tabs on DCU, I’ve been a casual follower of the league overall until this year, and my first year with MLS Live has been awesome. But I am definitely the exception.

    Reply

  6. Very good analysis and research. I just have one point of clarification that is very relevant to NBC Sports Network ratings in comparison to last year.

    When you discount the London Olympics lead-in bumps from last summer, the NBCSN numbers are virtually identical to last season. So I’d wager that’s the sole reason for the 20% drop on that network.

    Reply

    • Posted by WilkersonMcLaser on 2013/09/17 at 7:08 AM

      Completely agreed. Although that argument won’t get far in negotiations. No matter how you cut it, the ratings have been bad.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jay Bell on 2013/09/17 at 7:57 AM

        It’s a good point. And even stagnating at ratings that are already this low are a bad thing when NBC is splurging on the broadcast rights for other leagues. It’s very unfortunate that it may convince NBC not to bid next round when they’ve probably been the highest quality broadcast partner MLS has had in its short history.

        Reply

  7. Posted by Chazcar2 on 2013/09/17 at 9:51 AM

    I agree with the points that this article makes. Some of my details are a little different, plus I have another point.

    Additional point: MLS’s key moments always overlap key moments for other sports. Any sport has a few key moments in a schedule that fans are always most excited for. Start of the season, End of Season run-in, Playoffs, and Championship games. MLS starts during March Madness, ends during the World Series. The run-in of games are when the NFL starts ramping up, plus NHL and NBA are just starting during the MLS playoffs. While it would be hard to avoid all the conflicts I would try to make some changes to avoid this.

    So my MLS details:
    -League summary 24 teams in 4 regional divisions(add Orlando, Raleigh, Minneapolis, Miami/Atlanta), 34 game season, home-home within division (10 games), h-h with one other div (12 games), away to 1 div (6 games), Home to 1 div (6 games). 8 teams in playoffs, 4 div champs, 4 wild cards. H-H for quarters and semis, Neutral site Championship
    -Championship game is two/three weeks before Christmas. College Football regular season is over, NBA and NHL have started for a few weeks and MLB is long over. NFL games are winding down, but there are a few weeks before playoff games start. It is a busy time of year for people so that can be hard for people going to the game.
    -That means season starts first weekend in April. Just past the bulk of March Madness. NBA and NHL aren’t to playoffs yet. Also Champions league and european leagues are winding up so there will be good soccer related lead ins. MLB will be close to starting here too, so that is a bit of a problem.
    -MLS broadcast times should be Friday night games 7:30pm (1) and 10pm est (1), Saturday 5pm (2), 8pm (2), Sunday 11am(3), 2:00pm (3). Why 11am? Because NFL starts at 1. This means MLS can compete with Pregame shows on Sunday. Also because soccer fans are used to morning games from watching European league games.
    -I think the MLS holiday game should be Memorial Day. Its easy to plan around as its the same day of the week every year, similar to Thanksgiving. MLS season would be 2 months in, giving the players some time to get into game shape and for the standings to be somewhat important. Independence day is too much of a vacation day, so many people are just not at home to watch TV, leaving the home to go to beaches, firework shows, or what have you.
    -As for the MLB All star game day after… I am not sure what to do. The “SuperDraft” could be fun there, but that can complicate things for college students waiting to get drafted. Maybe the games the weekend after could be “Rivalry Week” style games. Or maybe the MLS transfer deadline could be that week. That week is pretty close to mid season in my schedule.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Andrew M. on 2013/09/17 at 8:20 PM

    I think you’re missing the real point Matt. It’s a matter of availability to the masses.

    Everyone no matter the cable package has ESPN and ESPN2, you have to pay extra to get NBCSN on most packages from most providers. Most of us young people who watch the sport (the vast majority of soccer viewership in this country are males under 30) don’t have the money to pay for premium cable packages.

    So while the quality is much better from NBCSN , it is unavailable to many of the viewers that could watch it on ESPN which everyone has.

    Reply

  9. […] (the viewing numbers this year are down considerably compared to last year). The first, entitled MLS ratings drift by The Shin Guardian blog, argues that the league needs to create consistent scheduling such as a […]

    Reply

  10. […] (the viewing numbers this year are down considerably compared to last year). The first, entitled MLS ratings drift by The Shin Guardian blog, argues that the league needs to create consistent scheduling such as a […]

    Reply

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