Soccer's biggest television stories of 2018

No story in 2018 was bigger than the World Cup in Russia, and it was the biggest story on television as Fox Sports and Telemundo broadcast their first men's World Cups.

But that wasn't the only change on the soccer television scene in 2018 with the UEFA Champions League moving to Turner Sports and Univision Deportes and the launch of ESPN's streaming service, ESPN+, increasing (at a price) the already heavy load of international soccer available each day to American audiences.

1. World Cup ratings drop as Fox Sports and Telemundo take over.

It was always going to be hard for Fox Sports and Telemundo to match ESPN and Univision and the record ratings they enjoyed for the 2014 World Cup.

Favorable time zones in Brazil pushed many games into the late afternoon and even prime time in parts of the country for some games. World Cup kickoff times in Russia meant start times as early as 3 a.m. in the Pacific time zone. An even bigger factor for the overall drop on ratings was the USA's absence. It was especially felt by Fox Sports, whose average viewership trailed the 2014 average by 29 percent.

For Telemundo, the elimination of all Conmebol and Concacaf teams by the semifinals hurt. The final between France-Croatia final drew 11.3 million viewers on Fox and 4.7 million on Telemundo. Despite being the highest-scoring final in more than half a century, the Fox viewership was down by 19 percent and the Telemundo viewership was down by 45 percent, compared with what ABC and Univision, respectively, drew for Germany vs. Argentina with Lionel Messi  in 2014.

2. Univision Deportes dominates soccer air waves.

Despite losing the rights to all the FIFA properties, including the World Cup, to Telemundo, Univision Deportes remains the dominant network for soccer. It released soccer viewing figures that gave the Spanish-language networks 53 percent of all soccer viewership on U.S. TV during this year's fourth quarter.

Mexico's Liga MX remains the most popular league on U.S. television by a wide margin. The Cruz Azul-Club America match to decide the Torneo Apertura final drew 2.5 viewers, making it the most-watched soccer match on U.S. television since the World Cup ended in July. The first leg of the series averaged 2.3 million viewers.

A big driver in the viewership on Univision, UniMas, Galavision and UDN has been the addition of the UEFA Champions League for which Univision Deportes acquired the Spanish-language rights. Univision Deportes has already aired nine of the top 10 all-time most-watched group stage matches,

In addition to the UEFA Champions League and Europa League and Liga MX, Univision Deportes aired MLS and the Bundesliga as well as the Concacaf Champions League and new UEFA Nations League that debuted this fall.

3. MLS Cup 2018 final draws largest audience since 1997.

The broadcast of MLS Cup 2018 between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers on Fox drew 1,563,000 viewers, the most for an MLS final since 1997, the league's second season and is a 91 percent increase over MLS Cup 2017 on ESPN.

The game drew the highest ratings in Atlanta (11.5) and Portland (7.3). The previous record in a market was 7.3 in Portland for MLS Cup in 2015 when the Timbers beat Columbus, 2-1.

During the regular season, MLS attracted 27.8 million U.S. TV viewers, a 6 percent increase from 2017 and up 73 percent since 2014. The biggest contributor was the jump in Fox viewership -- from 623,000 to 998,000 a game -- thanks to its MLS broadcasts directly following World Cup games.

4. ESPN+ launches with tons of soccer offerings.

In April, ESPN+, ESPN's direct-to-consumer premium subscription streaming service, launched, and in under six months, it reached one million subscribers.

Over the course of the year, ESPN+ became the home to tons of soccer, most notably the new home for MLS's out-of-market subscription streaming service. Other offerings included the USL and college soccer.

It also bought rights to Serie A and other Italian properties, the English Championship and FA and League Cups, Dutch Eredivisie, Danish Superliga, Swedish Allsvenskan as well as leagues in Australia (both A-League and women's W-League), China and India. ESPN, the home for all UEFA national team competitions, also carried the new UEFA Nations League on ESPN+.

5. NBC Sports' EPL studio show hits the road.

The standard for soccer coverage on American television remains NBC Sports' brilliant work on the English Premier League.

The Premier League partnered with NBC Sports on "Premier League Mornings Live" as the award-winning studio show aired live with fan audiences at events in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The move followed a record season for NBC Sports with 39.3 million viewers on NBCUniversal networks in 2017-18. Average viewers jumped to 449,000, up from 447,000 in 2016-17.

6. UEFA Champions League moves to TNT and B/R Live.

Turner Sports returned to soccer for the first time since WUSA, the first women's pro league, in 2001-03 with the acquisition of rights to the UEFA Champions League.

It aired two games each matchday on TNT -- UEFA moved two games each day to early time slots -- and streamed the rest on pay service B/R Live. (When the Champions League resumes in February, one game each day during the round of 16 and quarterfinals will only be available on B/R Live.)

The studio show was hosted by Kate Agbo and featured former NBA star Steve Nash as an analyst and included Americans Stu Holden, Maurice Edu, Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra from studios in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

7. MLS teams move to non-traditional partners for local deals.

Expansion Los Angeles FC and the Chicago Fire eschewed traditional regional broadcast partners by signing deals with YouTube TV and ESPN+, respectively.

Fans in the Los Angeles area with access to YouTube TV -- the digital subscription-content provider not to be confused with the ubiquitous YouTube video site and available for $35 a month -- watched LAFC matches and other team content on YouTube TV's local LAFC channel.

The Fire became the first MLS team to entirely go without a local or regional broadcaster -- LAFC games were also available on a local Spanish-language channel -- signing a three-year rights agreement with ESPN for 27 Fire games in 2018 to be available in both English and Spanish on ESPN+.

Fire fans pay the $4.99 monthly subscription for ESPN+ but that also gets them access to all MLS games on ESPN+ -- out-of-market games not broadcast nationally -- and the other ESPN+ streamed offerings.

Also: The NWSL moved six games from Lifetime to ESPNews and from Lifetime's traditional Saturday afternoon time slot to Saturday night. Late in the season, the league's streaming platform -- go90 -- was shuttered by Verizon. In 2019, non-televised games will be streamed on Yahoo.

-- ESPN hired Jon Champion on a multi-year deal to become its play-by-play voice of MLS and paired him alongside analyst Taylor Twellman, beginning with the 2019 season.

-- JP Dellacamera, whose work with Tony Meola was one of the standout performances at the World Cup in Russia,  was the 2018 recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award, just the second broadcaster to receive the National Soccer Hall of Fame's media award.

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