By Paul Kennedy
Only four more games remain -- Sunday's FC Dallas-Seattle and
Vancouver-Portland games and one game during each of the two legs of the conference finals -- before it's a wrap on Fox Sports 1's first year of coverage of MLS under the new eight-year agreement MLS
reached with Fox Sports, ESPN and Univision.
Fox Sports 1 posted gains of 40 percent over NBCSN’s total viewership (197,000 vs. 141,000) and 42 percent over the coveted demographic
of adults 18-49 (115,000 vs. 81,000) from a year ago. David Nathanson
, the head of business operation at Fox Sports, says he scrutinizes every aspect of FS1's
MLS coverage each week, from production, marketing, digital and social media to, obviously, viewership, but he is more concerned about the big picture.
"It is less about, 'Are we going to
grow x percent?'" he said in an interview with Soccer America this week "It is much more about, 'Can the league continue to be as competitive on a global basis as it can be? And are we doing the best
job as a broadcaster to showcase the league to the broadest possible audience so that fan base happens?' If that growth happens in time or if that growth happens quickly, we're in this game for the
long haul. This is not a one-year deal. And our horizon for the growth of soccer is not a short-term horizon. You can see just by the rights we have that we're in to support this game and grow this
game for the long haul. MLS is part of that long view."
Nathanson says helping to grow MLS will grow soccer and growing soccer is critical to supporting Fox Sports' other soccer
"We have a huge commitment to soccer between the Champions League, FIFA, Concacaf and a number of other tournaments," he said, "but supporting the growth of soccer
domestically and with our nation's league is critical not only to the growth of the sport in this country but we believe towards building a successful soccer nation that is going to compete on a
global scale in tournaments that are part of our portfolio, like the World Cup." Top 5 MLS Viewerships on Fox Sports 1: AVG. MATCH (DATE) 378,000
Orlando City-D.C. United (June 14) 371,000
Portland-Seattle (June 28) 315,000
NY Red Bulls-New York City (Aug. 9) 309,000
Seattle-New England (March 8) Note:
2015 regular-season matches.
The two most-watched
MLS regular-season games on Fox Sports 1 were during the Women's World Cup -- what Nathanson termed "television 101" that higher circulation for events like the U.S. Open golf championship, Women's
World Cup, NASCAR or baseball on FS1 will boost the viewership for other programs -- but he was also pleased that the audiences for big MLS matches grew organically as well.
a New York-New York rivalry to do well on television and it does," he said. "And you should expect that a Portland-Seattle, the Northwest derby if you will, will do particularly well, and it does."
Two of the Portland-Seattle matches ranked among the four best-watched matches. "What you're also seeing," added Nathanson, "is that events that should command the biggest audiences are commanding the
biggest audiences and that is also a great sign for the growth of the league and its importance on the soccer community."
Nathanson is convinced small steps taken in 2015, the first year
of the eight-year agreement, will pay dividends in the long run, little things like destination programming and cross-promotion.
"MLS fans, and new MLS fans frankly, know that on Sunday
they can watch the two best games that weekend on ESPN and Fox Sports 1 back to back," he said. "On Friday, Univision has its exclusive window when it shows its games, and on Saturday that's when you
can watch games on your local regional network. That is about as easy a way to explain and to market and promote it as possible, given the number of teams, the complexity of the local and national
relationships, the different languages, etc."
What surprised the league and the networks was just how many soccer fans were sticking with ESPN and FS1 through the Sunday afternoon
Just getting a viewer to switch from one network to another goes against the goal of every network to hold on to its audience for as long as possible -- and as Nathanson
points out, "requires a tremendous amount of communication and marketing and cooperation" -- but he said they were pleasantly surprised how many viewers would watch the first game on ESPN and then
switch to FS1 for the late game.
"Because of this consistent schedule," he said, "people could block out their viewing calendar because there is a limited window to have to watch sports
or television in general. People could block out their viewing calendar in advance and know how much time they had to commit to it. The beauty of soccer is that it's 90 minutes plus some [stoppage]
time, so you know pretty much exactly what that broadcast window will be, typically two hours."
That cooperation between Fox Sports and ESPN to cross-promote each other's MLS game
underscores their commitment to build the base.
"Our mutual objective from the beginning has been to grow the league, to grow the interest in the league, to grow the storylines and the
stars and we're doing that collectively and together," Nathanson said. "We're doing many of the same promos, we're promoting each other's matches back and forth, both within the game and in our
promotion for MLS around the game. That is very unusual for two competing networks and the reason you see that happening is that we all see the larger objective here, which is to continue to grow MLS
into one of the preeminent sports leagues in the United States and to showcase the competitiveness and the exciting game play that these teams put on the field week after week."
broadcasters, the big splash by expansion teams Orlando City and New York City FC, which ranked 2-3 in MLS behind Seattle in home attendance and both brought in big-name stars, was a huge plus.
"New York FC and Orlando are so young," Nathanson said, "that if they're not your local team there is no reason to support them yet. But fact is that these expansion teams are bringing in
world-class players that people are interested in seeing. And I think they will continue to bring in these world-class players and be competitive, and I think it is the next stage in the evolution of
the league to see all these teams be extremely competitive. Just look at what's happening this year."
Nathanson says the whole point of the close scrutinizing of the MLS product Fox
Sports puts on the air each Sunday is to improve it and grow it.
"That growth and that exposure to the broader audience takes time in any sport," he said. "And we firmly believe that MLS
not only has the potential, it will grow exponentially over the next eight years."