Television is only part of new media ecosystem for MLS

By Paul Kennedy

How does MLS build on the momentum of 2015 when it shattered league attendance records and introduced a host of new stars?

MLS entered the 2016 season without the organic buzz of a year ago when it celebrated its 20th season and added two new teams with large fan bases, New York City FC and Orlando City.

Seth Bacon, MLS's senior vice president, Media, was encouraged by the national television viewing numbers for opening day in particular but all the interest in the league more generally.

Total viewers and viewers in the key 18-49 demographic were up compared to the 2015 regular-season averages on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports 1 and UniMas, which had the highest viewership ever for an MLS opening game on the Univision networks.

MLS National Television Audiences (March 6)
468,000 *UniMas (LA Galaxy-D.C. United)
ESPN (Portland-Columbus)
267,000 Fox Sports 1 (Seattle-Sporting KC)
72,000 ESPN Deportes (Portland-Columbus)
24,000 Fox Deportes (Seattle-Sporting KC)
*Includes simulcast on UDN.

Of the three major networks, only the ESPN viewership for the Portland-Columbus rematch of MLS Cup 2015 was down significantly from its 2015 opening-day viewership (362,000 vs. 539,000), but that viewership for last year's Orlando City-NYCFC opener was an outlier. The viewership for Portland-Columbus -- featuring the No. 24 and No 31 television markets -- beat that of every other MLS regular-season game on ESPN in 2015.

"For us to pop that number and drive the viewership that we did for that game with this type of matchup is very, very encouraging," said Bacon. "It's us continuing to build on the momentum that we did last year. And it relates to how we are approaching the season. We have an unbelievable fan base that we know helps drive us as a league. We set a record for attendance last year. We set a record for attendance on Sunday. Orlando City-Real Salt Lake was the fifth-highest attendance in the world last weekend. We have great fans and we have great partners. And we are working to continue to build on our big-event platforms, like opening weekend, like Rivalry Week, like the All-Star Game, like the last two weeks of the season and the decision day format."

Bacon says MLS has been able to build its "smartest and most strategic television" schedule ever with its national broadcasters. In addition, ESPN has expanded programming windows for 16 games, adding pre- and post-game shows, and Fox will broadcast four MLS games for the first time. Bacon said ESPN and Fox Sports both sold out their advertising inventory in 2015 and will continue their cross-promotion of their national broadcasts with MLS-produced creatives and gave unprecedented support to MLS in the buildup to opening day.

Here are a few other takeaways from the opening MLS weekend ...

UniMas is a powerful soccer vehicle. The largest viewership on opening day was the audience of 458,000 viewers for the LA Galaxy-D.C. United game on UniMas, simulcast on UDN, that even outdrew the viewership of Telemundo's Sunday night reality television series in several key demographics. Last year's opening game on UniMas was the Friday night season opener involving the then-defending champion Galaxy and averaged only 341,000 viewers.

One difference, of course, is that the Galaxy has since signed Mexican star Giovani dos Santos, but Bacon says that is only part of the story.

"It's a testament not to just a single player or single team," he said, "but a testament to the investment Univision has made in the league, the partnerships they have shown us and the amount of promotion that they have done. It's also a testament to the quality of play on the field. It's about people tuning in to see world-class soccer."

UniMas, the former TeleFutura, was rebranded in late 2012 to appeal to a growing audience of Hispanic Millenials less interested in the traditional diet of novellas and variety shows offered by Univision and popular with their parents.

"It's clearly a very soccer-savvy fan that watches the network," said Bacon, "so they are pre-qualified. And as we continue to grow and develop this relationship together -- we're 10 years into the overall deal, we're two years in with the latest iteration -- we've doubled down on how we're going to how promote it and it's paying off."

Big-event promotions drive soccer consumption. The Portland-Columbus game was the second-most streamed MLS game ever on WatchESPN, where more fans watch MLS as a percentage of the television audience than for any other ESPN property.

MLS reached more than 11 million people across all its own and social media platforms and had more than 7.3 million video views during its March to Soccer promotion.

"We know we have this very, young tech-savvy fan base," said Bacon, "and we know they want more and more content on any device at any time."

Look to see MLS develop more big-event promotions to drive content to its fans and give value to its league sponsors.

"The story of the growth of our league is the story of the growth of the media industry," said Bacon. "Our fans are quicker to adopt to new technology, quicker to adopt to new ways to consume content, and we know that the plan we have aligns perfectly with who our fans are and that's in conjunction with our partners."

International is MLS's new frontier. Sky Sports had its highest-rated MLS game ever with 100,000 viewers for the Chicago-New York City FC opener. Eurosport's pan-regional channel reached more than 10 million viewers for its week-long MLS programming, culminating with its Sunday night game coverage.

"That's powerful for us," said Bacon. "That's powerful as a brand and powerful for us as a message to the soccer community we are relevant and we are being discussed as one of the top leagues in the world. We've become so relevant so quickly in these international markets it's fascinating and there is nothing but growth there."
3 comments about "Television is only part of new media ecosystem for MLS".
  1. beautiful game, March 13, 2016 at 1:02 p.m.

    Too bad that the media fails to deliver a better optical product and too many winded commentators that are clueless at their craft.

  2. billy brown, March 14, 2016 at 5:34 a.m.

    The NYCFC television angle is horrible. Its too low. Dont bother showing any NYCFC games.
    FOX needs to STOP messing with the screen size. YES the commentators are blatant liars AND no replays of fouls so you can't see how bad refs are fixing.
    All in All Totalitarian tv from MLS. Refs suck / mouths lie / All this optimism while using no replays to cover-up incompetence.
    Youre not fooling anybody so STOP!

  3. aaron dutch, March 14, 2016 at 12:57 p.m.

    Nowoz & Billy are 100% correct. I would add that ESPN coverage in general is really bad and holding MLS back. MLS really should focus on BEIN, UNIMAS, Fox and I would let NBC Sports bid as they have very good coverage and could take the professionalism to another level (Friday, Sat, Sunday) night games with top coverage it doesnt conflict with EPL so its a nice fit. ESPN is really weak.

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