If the next frontier for MLS is finding a mainstream television footing, the 2016 season did not get off to a great start.
ESPN’s opener, Portland vs. Columbus, drew just 362,000 viewers. The corresponding match, Orlando City SC vs. New York City FC on ESPN2 last year attracted 539,000 viewers. That constituted a 33 percent decline from 2015.
It was the 10th most watched soccer match in the U.S. that weekend. It ranked 6th for English language broadcast, behind five EPL matches on ESPN.
There are relevant factors favoring the 2015 match. It was two new clubs, one in the New York market. The match featured MLS debuts for international stars David Villa and Kaka. Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea also played.
For comparison, the biggest name for Portland vs. Columbus was Liam Ridgewell, a former journeyman defender in England. Of course, the 2016 match had a greater billing on ESPN vs. ESPN2.
Portland vs. Columbus was a rematch of the 2015 MLS Cup Final, which also saw a 30-plus percent decline in ratings. Both ratings are, perhaps, a sign of how the MLS action on the field and narratives themselves are generating little mainstream interest.
Ratings elsewhere were not as bad. FS1 viewership was nearly identical, 267,000 for Seattle vs. Sporting KC in 2016 to 268,000 for Sporting KC and Red Bull New York 2015. FS1, unlike in 2015, did not show a second match. LA Galaxy vs. DC United, on Spanish television, got a nine percent bump to 468,000 viewers.