Commentary

MLS television audience grows in Year 2 of new agreement

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Buoyed by moves of all three national partners to feature broadcasts more prominently on their various networks, MLS television viewing averages increased for all three partners, ranging from 11 percent to 20 percent, though they all remain modest in the comparison to those of other major U.S. sports leagues and the soccer leagues the most popular with U.S. audiences.

2016 MLS TV Viewership:
AVG. NETWORK (2015 AVG., +/1)
279,000 ESPN/ESPN2 (248,000, +13%)
245,000 Univision/UniMas/UDN (221,000, +11%)
236,000 Fox/FS1 (197,000, +20%)
Source: MLS.

For the first time, Fox Sports aired MLS matches on its Fox network, five games in all. The split-national broadcast of two MLS games adjacent to National Football League regional broadcasts on Sept. 17 delivered 1,298,000 viewers, making it the most-watched MLS telecast of any kind and on any network since 14-year-old Freddy Adu's pro debut in 2004.

Univision Deportes aired the LA Galaxy-San Jose California Clasico on June 25 on Univision Network, its first game on the network since 1999, and it averaged 1 million viewers, making it the highest rated MLS broadcast ever on the network.

ESPN's viewership was boosted by its broadcast of 29 regular-season matches on ESPN, an increase from nine in 2015 when most games aired on ESPN2, which generally draws a fraction of the audience for the same event on ESPN.

The increases in Year 2 of the new TV deal are significant because they contrast with a drop of 12 percent in ESPN2 viewership for Year 2 of MLS's previous eight-year national television agreement.

The coordinated effort of MLS and its broadcast partners to expand their coverage and promote league matches via expanded pre- and post-game coverage also underscore their commitment -- and confidence -- in the league in Year 2 of an eight-year agreement signed in 2014 even if the viewing figures remain modest compared to those of other major U.S. leagues and coverage of the English Premier League and Liga MX.

NBC Sports Group  averaged 514,000 viewers on NBC and NBCSN for its coverage of the English Premier League and 503,000 viewers for its National Hockey League regular-season coverage (with local blackouts). Univision averaged 629,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic alone for its 2015-16 Liga MX coverage.

Like Liga MX, MLS boasts a high concentration of younger viewers with 55 percent of its audience age 18-49, the highest concentration of any North American sports league. The September doubleheader on Fox drew 629,000 viewers in the 18-49 demographic, more than 48 percent higher than Fox's MLB coverage the day before in the same demo.

The largest audience for an MLS game on ESPN came the same day as the San Jose-Galaxy game on Univision. It averaged 616,000 viewers for the Seattle-NYCFC game that followed ESPN's coverage of the Portugal-Croatia knockout game at Euro 2016. In recent years, lead-ins from such events as the World Cup, Olympics and European Championship have helped boost MLS's summer television numbers.

As the late summer began and fall hit with the start of the National Football League, MLS viewership again dropped though there was no significant change on ESPN and FS1 combined for the three weeks after Labor Day (up 27 percent on FS1, down 12 percent on ESPN and down 2 percent combined).

As modest as its television numbers are compared to those of traditional American sports, MLS continues to aggressively promote itself to younger fans who consume content digitally. Promotions such as the opening March to Soccer, Heineken Rivalry Week and Decision Day give the league a chance to provide saturated digital coverage for its marketing partners to reach MLS's young audience.

MLS's followers on social media were up 95 percent in the last year, the views of its video content rose 45 percent, and the mobile audience grew 30 percent.
3 comments about "MLS television audience grows in Year 2 of new agreement".
  1. I w Nowozeniuk, October 30, 2016 at 11:35 a.m.

    Too many cameras on the pitch destroy the fluidity on the pitch. Every game has at least 360 head shots or closeups of players, ref, coach, bench, etc. Horrible.

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 31, 2016 at 1:04 a.m.

    Agreed. But congratulations to MLS. It has only taken 20 years to get this far. Hopefully coverage will continue to improve, but at a fast rate.

  3. Andrea Hana, November 1, 2016 at 3:56 p.m.

    "The split-national broadcast of two MLS games adjacent to National Football League regional broadcasts on Sept. 17 delivered 1,298,000 viewers, making it the most-watched MLS telecast of any kind..."
    I wonder what the actual TV ratings were for the NFL games combined, that weekend. This information is not submitted and I couldn't decipher the information on the Sports Media Watch website. Any answers?

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