[MLS] There may be major changes next year regarding Major League Soccer on television, but its ratings so far this season on ESPN2 and Fox Soccer Channel aren’t encouraging. According to a story in the Sports Business Daily earlier this week, ratings for MLS telecasts are down 12.3 percent from last year and down 1.6 percent from its telecasts in 2008. Games this season are averaging 249,000 viewers compared to 284,000 last season.
Telecasts on Fox Soccer Channel average 53,000 viewers per telecast, which is the same as last year, though an Aug. 14 telecast of Rafael Marquez’s league debut for the Red Bulls more than doubled that average with 144,000 viewers.
“Every league is constantly seeking more viewers to their games,” said Commissioner Don Garber. “We work hard with all our broadcast partners to achieve that: promotion, marketing, scheduling, production -- and production continues to improve -- to take one of those issues. It’s also a matter of what we do to improve our quality of play and so many other things, so hopefully we’ll grow the relevance of our clubs and the overall interest in our clubs that will translate into growth of our television ratings.”
The league’s contract with FSC expires at the end of the season, and though Garber is confident that a new deal will be struck, MLS has also discussed a partnership with the Versus network, which has a much greater reach (74.7 million households) than FSC (approximately 37 million).
MLS is contracted with ESPN through 2014 and its Univision deal isn’t up for renewal. In 2010 the league is scheduled to receive between $15 million and $20 million for rights to its games.
“It does not need to be one or the other,” said Garber of games perhaps running on both FSC and Versus, which has impressed MLS officials with its game production and studio coverage of the NHL. “We are very, very focused with renewing our deal with Fox Soccer Channel, and have had a number of discussions with Versus on their interest in Major League Soccer. How that gets resolved will be determined in the next couple of months.”
Versus, which is owned by Comcast, is based in Philadelphia, where the expansion Union averaged 19,254 fans in its first season. It is also one of the few MLS teams to air its games over-the-air, rather than on local cable network. Many league teams use regional Comcast SportsNet networks for their local television packages and while Garber isn’t releasing any figures, financial or otherwise, he’s adamant that more teams have cut good broadcast deals than in the past, when teams had to buy the air time and also pay production costs.
“Philly’s got an over-the-air package that does very well, Salt Lake does, Seattle’s doing very, very well. Los Angeles is doing well and Chivas also has a very good local television deal. There are quite a few clubs that do very well locally.”
ESPN2 has instituted a regular Thursday-Sunday schedule of telecasts for the playoffs, including the Nov. 21 final in Toronto that kicks off at 8:30 p.m. ET. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was unable to clear the kickoff time to air the game. It will be carried instead on TSN2 (The Sports Network), of which 20 percent is owned by ESPN, which is not legally distributed in Canada.
MLS Cup 2010 is scheduled to be broadcast in 116 countries by ESPN International.