MLS feels Gio effect as sports clout of Spanish-language networks grows

By Paul Kennedy

The landscape of sports television is changing. In an historic development, Univision Deportes announced on Friday that Spanish-language sports news program Contacto Deportivo, which airs at midnight on the Univision Network, had overtaken the midnight edition of ESPN SportsCenter, the king of all sports news shows, averaging 5 percent more viewers for the month of August.

Several factors are at play, among them:

-- Contacto Deportivo's move from UniMas to Univision, from one over-the-air network to another, more widely available over-the-air network;
-- The decline in subscribers to pay-network ESPN, so-called cord-cutters who want to reduce or eliminate their cable bills.

The numbers are startling: Contacto Deportivo's viewership was up 213 percent year-to-year, making it the fastest-growing sports news program on all television, while viewership of ESPN SportsCenter -- the sports network's flagship program -- was down 8 percent.

What that means for soccer is simple. More sports fans are watching an hour of Contacto Deportivo filled with soccer news, highlights, interviews and features than are watching ESPN SportsCenter for which soccer is generally still an afterthought to football, basketball and baseball and other sports.

When you watch an hour of Contacto Deportivo, you notice it goes heavy with on-location updates from Liga MX clubs around Mexico. Mexican soccer remains the king of Spanish-language sports programming with viewing figures for Liga MX games often double those for the English Premier League, the most popular regularly scheduled soccer programming on English-language television.

But what the rise of Contacto Deportivo also means is more fans are getting daily news and highlights on MLS teams and players than ever before. If you're an MLS fan tuned to your television, there is no better way to catch up on the all evening action, whether it is in MLS or the Concacaf Champions League or national teams, than with the late-night highlights available on Contacto Deportivo.

Just as this is a historic year for MLS with two networks -- Fox Sports and ESPN -- offering dedicated time slots back-to-back on the same day, so too has there been increased coverage of MLS on Spanish-language television. UniMas, UDN, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes will combine to carry more than 100 regular-season games in 2015, almost one-third of the schedule.

For the first time, a major American professional sports league opened its season with exclusive coverage on a Spanish-language network when the 2015 MLS opener -- LA Galaxy-Chicago -- aired on UniMas and UDN and was simulcast in English. And UDN began airing Somos MLS, a Sunday night MLS magazine show, the first of its kind on Univision networks.

MLS received a boost this summer when the Galaxy signed Giovani dos Santos, the youngest Mexican superstar ever to join an MLS club. Dos Santos' first four MLS games with the Galaxy -- two home, two away -- were all sellouts, and the Galaxy's final three regular-season home games should sell out.

August has traditionally seen MLS television viewing figures slump, but the Galaxy's first three games with dos Santos on national televison have drawn unprecedented numbers on both English-language and Spanish-language television, reflecting MLS's growing crossover appeal.

“We’re up year-over-year on all of our Spanish networks," said Seth Bacon, MLS's Senior Vice President, Media, said in email. "This reinforces one of our key points of differentiation, which is that MLS is a multi-language league -- we’re seeing record crossover between our English and Spanish network partners -- English speakers are watching in Spanish and Spanish speakers are watching in English.”

For Dos Santos' debut on Aug 6, the Galaxy-Seattle game averaged 549,000 total viewers on ESPN -- its largest MLS audience in three years -- and 183,000 total viewers on ESPN Deportes -- its largest audience ever. That was followed by 452,000 viewers on ESPN and 122,000 viewers on ESPN Deportes for the Galaxy-NYCFC game two weeks later. For the Galaxy's third match on national television, its 1-0 loss at San Jose on Aug. 28, the audience on UniMas was 356,000 total viewers, its largest MLS audience of the season. Not surprisingly, the Galaxy's home match against FC Dallas on Sept. 26 was moved to Sept. 27 and will air on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes, giving them the Galaxy and dos Santos on back-to-back late Sunday nights.

“We have best in class media partners in the Spanish-language space -- Univision, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes," Bacon added. "We’re extremely happy with the numbers we saw on [Aug. 28]. The Earthquakes-Galaxy match was the highest rated Spanish language broadcast of the year. The star power of the game -- particularly Giovani dos Santos -- was clearly a part of the appeal for viewers."

The largest growth in MLS's television audience is on ESPN (up 50 percent year to year to an average of 407,000 total viewers as compared to 2013 -- only one regular-season game aired in 2014), and Fox Sports 1 (up 60 percent to 224,000 total viewers as compared to NBCSN in 2014). The increases on ESPN and Fox Sports 1 in the key P18-49 demo are even higher: 85 percent and 63 percent higher, respectively.

The three Spanish-language networks that carried MLS in 2014 are all up, 13 percent to 27 percent in terms of total viewers, while Fox Deportes is up 67 percent as compared to 2011 when it last aired MLS games.

The total viewers remain modest on Fox Deportes and ESPN Deportes, which offer simulcast coverage in Spanish of the same games that air on the Fox and ESPN English-language networks, and on UDN, Univision's all-sports network that offers stand-alone coverage of some MLS matches and simulcasts some of the other games on UniMas. ESPN Deportes has the lowest average viewership at 43,000, and its viewership is flat in the P18-49 demo. All the other networks are up least 33 percent in the P18-49 range advertisers covet.

“We have a strong base to build on," said Bacon. "We’re very encouraged by the viewership we’ve seen in 2015, especially in the 18-49 demo.”

All comparisons should be made with caution. The number of games, mix of games and time of year they aired were inconsistent in recent years. MLS is seeing the benefit of consistent slots -- Friday night for the Univision networks, Sunday night for the ESPN and Fox networks -- but it will only be able to measure its real television growth after two or three years of its airing games in consistent time slots.

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