The Sports Business Journal published a breakdown of the 2013 WNBA ratings on ESPN Tuesday. Bear in mind I’ve never actively tuned in to watch a WNBA game, but it appears about 230,000 folks on average tuned in for the league’s games this season on the ESPN family of networks. Go figure. The WNBA is an easy target for Internet mockery, but if you want to spend your leisure time tuning in — go nuts — it’s a free country and your right to do so. (Wait, was that a Ron Swanson line? Although a fictional character, he is probably the most well-known WNBA fan out there.)
Anyways, the SBJ opens the story noting that WNBA ratings are higher than those of MLS. Regular season MLS games on ESPN averaged about 220,000 viewers and roughly half that figure for games on NBCSN. That’s awfully embarrassing for MLS, which always struggles for respect from both American soccer fans and sports fans in general.
It’s easy to write a pissy comment along the lines of, “It’s MLS, who carezzzzzz, play a real sport.” (Haha, hilarious.) Obviously some people do care. Attendance, although slightly down in 2013 thanks to the Chivas USA mess in Los Angeles, still averages a healthy 18,594 per game across the league, which is on par with the NBA and NHL.
In the last five years MLS has grown in leaps-and-bounds, from in-stadium experience to quality on the field. Investors are eager to jump into the league with new teams cropping up soon in New York, Orlando and potentially a David Beckham-helmed club in Miami. There’s much to be bullish about without needing to be a full-on MLS evangelist.
Yet the one area MLS continues to fight a seemingly Sisyphean struggle is the television department. In 2012 MLS posted its best ratings average on ESPN since the league’s inception in 1996, averaging over 310,000 for its 20 broadcasts. A year later it lost almost 100,000 of those eyeballs, which can’t entirely be attributed to Beckham’s retirement. The number MLS posts for its Cup Championship next month likely won’t be anything to crow about, either, with the remaining clubs — Houston aside — in relatively small media markets.
The league’s current television package with ESPN and NBC also expires after the 2014 season.
Last month I spoke with ESPN’s lead MLS analyst, Taylor Twellman, specifically to talk about the U.S. striker pool leading up to the World Cup, yet we spent a solid 25-30 minutes wondering why the TV ratings remain so minuscule and stagnant?
“Everything has grown but the TV rating, that falls on the fans shoulders,” Twellman said. “MLS, whoever has the rights, can improve the times, the slots, etc. You know the NFL is 1/4/8 on Sunday. There shouldn’t be a discrepancy for 1.9 (rating) for US/Mexico and a 0.2 on Sunday night for Portland/Seattle. I don’t understand that discrepancy as a number.”
Part of the problem, although certainly not all of it, is the apparent randomness of the MLS national television schedule. The first three ESPN2 broadcasts this season aired on Sundays at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. and 1 p.m. in March. NBCSN’s scheduling — mostly on Saturday’s — was equally scattered with games at 11 p.m. one week and 1 p.m. the next. If NBC settled on a time, say 4 p.m. on Saturdays in the summer when nothing else is on, perhaps more folks would make time to watch. (Or even build around the July 4 holiday that tends to be starved for sports on television.)
As ESPN’s Alexi Lalas discussed this summer if Clint Dempsey’s arrival in Seattle would move the television needle, trying to make a “destination” night for MLS hasn’t exactly worked either, but could long term if the league picks a day and time to build around.
“We’ve tried all different things to make a it a destination, to own a night,” Lalas told me this summer. “I still believe that’s not going to happen over night. You have to carve out that moment. … Recognize you have to stick with that. Going forward, we have to do that. It’s this time, it’s this day, I know there’s a game on.”
Take the on-going MLS playoffs. The first leg of the conference semifinals again aired seemingly at random times. The Houston/Kansas City game aired on NBC in the middle of Saturday afternoon, pitted against a full slate of college football. The next day Portland and Salt Lake played at 9 p.m. smack against “Sunday Night Football” and powerhouse tv shows like “The Walking Dead.” Unless you were actively seeking out those games, chances are you didn’t even know they were on television.
There’s also a sense, believe it or not, of soccer overload. In the span of a decade America has gone from almost zero live soccer on the airwaves, to the point where it’s a shock when a game isn’t on television. This week ESPN will air the USMNT friendly vs. Scotland, the Mexico/New Zealand World Cup playoff while all four European World Cup playoffs will be available on the Watch ESPN app.
Or look at it this way, the (English) Premier League and Champions League have made major inroads in recent years, but air at times not exactly swamped by other sports. The EPL has most of Saturday mornings to itself as the only live-sporting option, while the Champions League airs in the middle of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday — another time where it’s the only live action.
MLS, which is still in its infancy, doesn’t have this luxury — especially toward the end of the season when the playoffs run head-to-head with college football and the NFL. Plus there’s the overriding belief held by many Americans that MLS is an “inferior” league, making the battle for eyeballs even more of an uphill battle. Why watch MLS when so much else is going on when I can watch a better product from England or Spain, right? Call it “Euro-snobbery” or simply call it a matter of convenience.
NBC, which paid $250 million to acquire Premier League rights, averaged 390,000 viewers for its early-season broadcasts and saw almost a million tune in for the Everton/Chelsea match in mid-September and Sunday’s Manchester United/Arsenal game on NBCSN averaged over 800,000 viewers — numbers that certainly must make MLS executives cringe.
Twellman expressed shock how U.S. National Team matches could be such a draw for viewers to ESPN, yet MLS is an afterthought even if many of the same players feature in both games. (September’s U.S./Mexico game on ESPN drew a record 1.9 rating.) He says the only way for the MLS salary cap to increase — which could help bring in more attractive players for viewers — is for the ratings to go up which creates a Catch-22 scenario.
“Every other sport in American makes money off TV. It’s a great experience to go to a game. If you polled the fans in the stadium, are you going to watch another game on ESPN or NBC fan, how many will say yes?,” Twellman said. “I don’t know what it is. It’s interesting to me that we haven’t figured it out. If I went on Twitter right now I’d get excuses (for the low ratings). There’s that one fan, every now and then that says we need to change.”
Whatever changes MLS make — mostly for the good — there doesn’t seem to be anything specific the league can do to get folks to tune in for its broadcasts. Outside of commissioner Don Garber coming to your house and controlling your remote control, there isn’t a magic bullet to cure all of MLS’ TV woes.