Major League Soccer’s television ratings still don’t exactly leap off the page.
In comparison with North America’s other four major professional sports leagues, MLS lags far behind the NFL, MLB and the NBA in average viewership, and trails the NHL by a more modest amount.
But while MLS is lacking in terms of raw figures, it does have one accomplishment in recent season to hang its hat on: growth.
In an industry that’s rapidly hemorrhaging viewers from broadcast to digital platforms – or sometimes just losing them entirely, MLS saw its overall TV ratings increase, if only modestly, in the 2017 season.
Here's a look at the numbers for the 2017 MLS regular season on the league’s three U.S. television partners:
ESPN: Viewership on ESPN and ESPN2 combined was slightly down in 2017. MLS matches on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 272,000 viewers in 2017, compared to 274,000 in 2016.
Fox: Fox and Fox Sports 1 combined to average a five percent increase in viewership in 2017 (236,000 average viewers in 2017 versus 224,000 in 2016).
Univision: The league’s Spanish-language partner showed a five percent growth on numbers from matches on Univision and UniMas combined (265,000 in 2017 versus 252,000 in 2016).
Overall, the 2017 MLS regular season delivered 26.3 million gross viewers across all U.S. networks, up four percent versus 2016.
Again, these numbers in and of themselves are nothing to write home about. But MLS is a unique case in the professional sports TV landscape, with many other North American leagues losing viewers year-over-year.
The NHL, which is the major North American league closest to MLS in terms of viewership, averaged 467,000 viewers across NBC and NBCSN last season. That figure is roughly double what MLS games bring in, but it was also down seven percent from the previous season.
The NHL isn’t the only league to see a decline in its viewership. The NBA experienced a similar drop last season, and the NFL continues to make headlines with its TV numbers dropping over the last two seasons after a decade of seemingly unstoppable increases.
“We have year-over-year growth. That’s not a story that everyone in the industry is able to tell right now,” MLS senior vice president of media Seth Bacon told Goal.
“[TV numbers going] up in this day and age is something that we’re very proud of and very bullish on because we’ve done a lot of work with our partners internally at the league to make sure that every year we have the story of continued growth.”
That growth can be attributed to any number of factors, but a major reason overall MLS TV ratings have increased every year since 2014 is that matches are simply available to more people now than ever before.
For example, in 2015 there were just eight MLS matches broadcast on ESPN, with 26 games on the less-distributed ESPN2. In 2016 and 2017, though, those numbers flipped, with a large majority of ESPN’s MLS matches now broadcast on its flagship network.
Last season, Fox began showing games on its broadcast network for the first time, with four matches on over-the-air Fox. That trend continued with five matches in 2017 and will likely carry over to 2018 as well.
And Univision broadcasted six matches on its over-the-air channel in 2017, when it had only featured games on its cable networks in recent seasons.
Shifting matches to channels with higher distribution has been key for MLS in recent seasons, and Bacon, who joined the league in 2014, has been given credit for helping get broadcast partners on board with this change.
“We’re continuing to be very smart and data-driven with how we build our schedule,” Bacon said. “Making sure that we’re looking at the right lead-in opportunities, the right programming windows, the right marketing opportunities, where the right audiences will be.”
There have been some successes in recent seasons, but how will MLS ensure its numbers continue to grow in 2018?
It’s a World Cup year, which has the potential to bring huge viewership totals if MLS can utilize its Fox partnership to schedule World Cup-MLS doubleheaders.
“There will be more Fox broadcast events next year, and we’re hoping to take advantage of some World Cup lead-ins,” Bacon said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for us to schedule in a very smart way and that will hopefully continue to build the audience.”
Of course, there is one big caveat for MLS next summer: For the first time since the league existed, the U.S. won’t be at the World Cup.
Recent World Cups have provided a boost for MLS, but will the absence of the U.S. stifle that potential growth next summer? Bacon remains optimistic.
“The World Cup is the most relevant soccer tournament in the world, we know it’s going to be a huge event,” Bacon said.
“Onward for us and we think it’s going to be a great year because more people are going to be talking about the sport of soccer in the United States and Canada.”