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)
AVG. NETWORK (GAME)
*UniMas (LA Galaxy-D.C. United)
ESPN (Portland-Columbus) 267,000
Fox Sports 1 (Seattle-Sporting KC)
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.
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."