If there is one tangible measure of how far Major League Soccer still has to go, it is television ratings.
There is a litany of evidence to support this claim, but one need look no further than the TV money raked in by the league's American sports contemporaries. The NFL, NBA and MLB all earn more than $1 billion annually in TV contract revenue, while the NHL receives $200 million each year.
For MLS, it's just $27 million.
While attendance and on-field play continue to improve and new stadiums spring up like weeds, TV viewership stands in stark opposition to some of the more feel-good stories the league has produced over the last decade. And that's bad news for any sports entity, because while gate and merchandising revenue are nice, TV money is the ultimate judge of a league's viability.
Despite some troubling numbers, the league's TV rating story is still in its opening chapters, and starting to turn for the better. The question, as it so often is with MLS though, is whether that growth is moving fast enough.
“I'm not going to kid you,” Jon Miller told Goal.com, “MLS is still very much in its infancy.”
Miller is president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, which secured MLS and U.S. national team rights prior to the 2012 season on a three year, $30 million deal. He uses this caveat when comparing MLS ratings to those of the NHL, a league many have targeted as Major League Soccer's next rung up in the American sports ladder, but one that significantly outperforms it in ratings.
“You can't compare MLS with NHL,” Miller said. “The NHL is much farther along and is a much much bigger property. MLS is still relatively young by comparison.”
Indisputably, MLS is still in its infancy at age 18, and comparatively speaking – and by that I mean comparing itself to itself – 2012 was a banner year for television viewership.
Boosted by its new partnership with NBC and its ongoing relationship with ESPN, 2012 was the most watched season in league history.
With sleek production, quality announcers, and in-depth pre and post-game shows, NBC and NBCSN drew an aggregate audience of 13.2 million in 2012, compared to just 2.7 million on Fox Soccer in 2011 (NBCSN is available in about twice as many homes as FSC but obviously, the numbers more than make up for this discrepancy).
“We were extremely pleased with our first year with NBC Sports,” MLS executive vice president Dan Courtemanche told Goal.com. “We felt that they really took the quality of the broadcasts to new levels.”
ESPN/ESPN2 showed improvement as well in 2012, averaging 311,000 viewers for its games, up 6.5 percent from 292,000 in 2011.
There was improvement to be sure, but there was also ugliness. Counting regular and post-season, 30 of NBCSN's 54 broadcasts attracted less than 100,000 viewers. The league's return to network TV was a flop, as the three matches shown on NBC averaged just a 0.4 rating and 521,000 viewers, putting them among the lowest rated live sporting events on network television during their respective weekends.
So, how does MLS go about affixing more eyeballs to their televised product?
Scheduling is a massive piece of the puzzle. When it comes to ratings success, the “when” is almost as important as the “what”.
“When we sit down and put together the entire league schedule, one of the top priorities is slotting in our national television partners,” Courtemanche said.
There is a push-pull that occurs between the league and its broadcast partners when drawing up the schedule, one that essentially pits attendance versus television ratings.
“If I had my druthers, a lot of times I'd put MLS games on at five in the afternoon and go from five to 7:30,” Miller said. “But because of attendance considerations, and weather situations, they would rather play their games in prime-time under the lights where they can maximize their attendance. We certainly understand that.”
No ESPN or ESPN2 game in the second half of the 2012 season averaged more than 300,000 viewers. In the first half of the season, there were eight such matches. Timing was a major factor, as a large majority of those second half games began at 9:00 p.m. ET or later.
Part of optimal scheduling is having strong lead-in programming. In the world of television, the importance of quality lead-ins is impossible to understate.
On June 24, ESPN drew 888,000 viewers for a Portland-Seattle game, which marked the third largest regular-season cable audience in league history. The Cascadia rivalry was much less of a draw than the preceding program: England versus Italy in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal.
NBCN's top-rated match in 2012 was a FC Dallas-Portland game on Aug. 5. Viewers didn't show up en masse to watch Brek Shea match up against Kosuke Kimura, but instead, because the Olympics were shown immediately prior to the match.
Unfortunately, there are no Olympics or European Championships in 2013, but NBC's acquisition of full English Premier League rights brings with it some very intriguing lead-in potential.
However, the 2013 MLS campaign isn't going to be the best litmus test for EPL games as MLS lead-ins. After August 2013, when NBC's deal with the EPL starts, there is only one MLS game on NBCSN at a time with EPL lead-in potential: Sporting KC at Philadelphia on Oct. 26 at 3:00 p.m. ET.
Instead, the league will have to settle for the benefits of NBC's promotional clout.
“You're not going to have the ability to necessarily put a lot of live EPL games as lead-ins,” Miller said. “You will have the benefit of promoting MLS in those EPL games, and there are going to be EPL games on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, so they're going to have the benefit of a lot of promotion in those games.”
During those promotions, NBC will hope to reach what is Major League's Soccer's most important target audience, and the group that will ultimately determine the league's ratings destiny over the next few seasons.
“Our biggest challenge at Major League Soccer is not necessarily the fact that we don’t have soccer fans in the U.S. and Canada,” Courtemanche said. “It's the fact that we need to work hard at converting all of the soccer fans into fans of Major League Soccer.”
This is the crux of the league's television problem, and helps explain why the league and its broadcast partners are so reluctant to compare their ratings to those of America's other major sports.
EPL and Champions League matches have generally fared well on U.S. television. Major League Soccer doesn't need to make soccer fans out of football or basketball or hockey die-hards right now. It needs to convince Manchester United fans to also follow D.C. United.
Obviously, it's impossible to ignore the on-field differences in quality between Major League Soccer and the world's top leagues. Still, there are ways MLS can make inroads in converting fans, and one of the keys is leveraging its local identity.
Courtemanche provided a hypothetical example of the league's marketing mentality. If a Chicago Fire player originally from Miami is having a standout season, MLS will pitch stories on that player to the Miami media during the week leading up to the Fire playing a nationally televised game. These are the ways the league needs to differentiate itself from its far-away soccer contemporaries.
Major League Soccer's contracts with both ESPN and NBC are up after the 2014 season. When the league's new TV deal is announced, we'll have a tangible measure of just how far it has come.
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