While the MLS Cup Final this past Sunday turned out to be incredibly entertaining, it struggled to find an audience. Viewership for the Columbus Crew SC vs. Portland Timbers match wound up being one of the lowest watched MLS Cup Finals in history with 668k watching on ESPN and 206k on Univision Deportes according to @SportsTVRatings. To be fair, that was a better number than I was expecting after hearing the initial news Monday. These numbers were similar to last year’s Final when the LA Galaxy beat the New England Revolution and Landon Donovan ended his career. To have similar viewership with Landon Donovan’s final game can be a small victory but that doesn’t hide that there are still some issues with MLS being able to gain a broader TV audience than diehard MLS fans.
TV is the “elephant in the room” when it comes to MLS growth. It is the one aspect that hasn’t totally been figured out by MLS and is the key for future success. It also doesn’t help they are in an unwinnable position as they must worry about domestic and international success and have started decades later than everybody else.
By placing the MLS playoffs during the fall, it is most likely that the game will be in direct competition with the NFL. The NFL, as well as College Football, rules TV and, with games on Monday; Thursday; Saturday; Sunday; and sometimes Friday, there isn’t much opportunity for MLS to have their Final and not conflict with the NFL.
One idea is to have the MLS Cup Final on a weeknight like Tuesday or Wednesday night. I think this is a pretty good idea and since this wouldn’t conflict with the NFL, would be an easier TV night for domestic ratings. Two issues that can prevent this from happening is that this creates a risk that a team who hosts the game will still not be able to sell out the Cup Final, causing an even bigger embarrassment.
Also, MLS just signed TV deal agreements with over 3/4 of the world. This years MLS Cup Final was on Sky Sports 1 in the UK. A 4:25 PM kickoff means a 9:25 PM kickoff in the UK. Putting the game at 9:00 PM on a weekday means 2:00 AM in the UK and you may as well forget anyone in Europe or anywhere else, other than the Americas, watching this game. Now, maybe MLS should take a priority on improving domestic ratings than international, but, considering they have spent millions on these star players from Europe, international ratings are important for them too.
Another idea is to switch to the winter schedule, and have the MLS Cup Final around May like the conclusion of many other soccer leagues around the world. This isn’t going to work and won’t be adopted by MLS for a variety of reasons. First, ESPN and FOX want MLS for the summer months when the only mainstream sport on TV is baseball and are in need of live sports. Second, by following an August-May schedule, MLS will be in competition with the NFL for 2/3 of the MLS season instead of 1/2 of the season now. While this puts the MLS Cup Final on at a better time of the year, it sacrifices most of the season and does something that MLS is trying to avoid in the first place. Third, every team except for San Jose, LA, Houston, Dallas and Orlando are located in places where it is freaking freezing in the winter. That is 3/4 of MLS situated in cold climates in the winter. If some places are having trouble filling their stadiums during a beautiful summer night, imagine how hard it’ll be to convince people to do that in 10 degree weather for a Chicago Fire game. Finally, the Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution currently play in NFL stadiums. Arthur Blank is building a stadium in Atlanta for his Falcons and a new MLS team. The fact that MLS operates during the time NFL is in their offseason is attractive to NFL owners to also own an MLS team in order to maximize on stadium revenue during the NFL offseason when their stadiums would normally be empty during that time and make it easier to sell to their local government to obtain taxpayer money to build their stadium. MLS would be stupid to shut that possible door, especially when they have just approved expansion to 28 teams.
Maybe it’s best for MLS to stick with their plan to have their games on Sunday’s and not worry what the NFL is doing. MLS is in the unenviable task of trying to attract non sports fans and fans of other sports but they must also try to attract soccer fans who may rather watch other soccer leagues around the world.
Head of the Premier League Richard Scudamore talked about the EPL in the United States at Blazer Con, and what he said applies to MLS. He explained that the United States has so many people that you don’t necessarily need to have NFL viewership numbers and be a successful sport. There are 320 million people living in the United States. If just 1% watches the Premier League every week, that is 3.2 million viewers a week and compared to current EPL ratings, would be a rousing success for non-World Cup soccer viewership in this country. If 50 million people watch the NFL on Sunday’s, that means there is 270 million people doing something else on Sunday afternoons. Maybe we should worry less about the 50 million watching the most popular sport in the country because they’re going to watch the NFL no matter what, and focus on the 270 million not watching the NFL and figure out how to get just 1% of them to watch MLS. When measured like that, MLS can utilize small tweaks and not have to completely change the system in order to increase ratings for their championship game.