When setting up for the current MLS season, which started the last weekend of February, one of the major themes was the league locking in its new TV deal sometime in March. MLS’s TV deal has been paltry when compared to the other sports leagues ($90m a year), and there was a feeling that while the new one still wouldn’t get them into the same neighborhood as even the NHL, it would at least allow them to be in the same area code.
Well, we’re in April now, and all is quiet on the western front. Three weeks ago, Sam Stejskal of The Athletic went in depth about where negotiations were, and they didn’t sound good. Turner has shown passing interest, ESPN wasn’t any more passionate about it, Fox seemed to be completely disinterested even though they’ll be televising the World Cup, and Apple was sniffing around. The possible total money being tossed around was way short of what the league had been hoping for, more like $150-$200 million instead of the $300 million they had wanted.
The major reason is that MLS’ TV ratings suck shit. There’s really no way around that.
For example, last Saturday’s “El Traffico” derby between the Galaxy and LAFC drew a 0.10 rating on regular Fox and 477,000 people watched it, according to ShowBuzzDaily.com. Getting a game on a major network is not to be sneezed at, and maybe not something you would have seen even three years ago. But for comparison’s sake, Sunday’s Man City-Liverpool match on USA Network drew a 0.40 rating and was watched by over a million people. It’s not a totally fair comparison, as that was the biggest Premier League match in some time, but it’s also still a network vs. cable set-up that the MLS’s biggest match on the calendar got domed in.
Meanwhile, MLS’ other national broadcasts this past weekend on cable — Inter Miami vs. New England on ESPN on Saturday and Charlotte vs. Atlanta on Sunday on ESPN as well — didn’t even register on the top 40 programs. Chelsea’s win at Southampton on Saturday morning brought in 407K viewers, and Manchester United-Everton brought in 330K even though it was on at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. The Liga MX match between Toluca and Chivas on Saturday night brought in 328K. MLS broadcasts have regularly come in at the 200K viewer mark, give or take. This has been the story all season, and really for the past few years.
So what’s the problem?
The first one is that MLS is in the unique position in the US of not being the best league in the world in its sport. Every other one in this country, fans can be assured they’re seeing the best product anywhere with the best players. That is very much not the case with MLS, and it seems even casual fans know it. After spending the morning having the Premier League just as accessible, and Serie A, Bundesliga, and La Liga a click away on streaming channels, it would appear fans just don’t want to do the gear change in the afternoon or night for Minnesota United and the Rapids. This is a national sporting fandom that has only been brought up on the best.
MLS is not going to be able to change that anytime soon, and probably never. And while the exporting of US stars to Europe is good for the players and flushes the league with transfer cash, it won’t do much for the perception from the casual fan that MLS is only a stepping stone.
Second, MLS faces similar problems that the NHL does, in that it’s an extremely parochial fan experience. Fans are really only interested in watching their teams, and don’t really care much for Stars-Jets on a Wednesday night. That’s why NBC was always crowbarring the Hawks or Rangers or Penguins or Flyers onto their national TV schedules, because they had the largest fan bases.
Same goes for MLS. Orlando FC might have a passionate fanbase, but that doesn’t mean they want to watch Portland when they get home on Sunday evening. And much like hockey, MLS hasn’t really been able to create household stars that people tune in to see regardless of location or team. But unlike the NHL, part of that is a lot of the candidates have left the league altogether.
MLS will always struggle to compete with Liga MX on TV, given the latter’s roots with their fans that have been built over generations. The Leagues Cup that starts next year, a combined tournament between Liga MX and MLS teams, was supposed to address that and get MLS in front of eyes that only watch Liga MX. It was also supposed to be awfully attractive to TV providers, hoping to crack into the ratings the Mexican league gets. But that hasn’t proven to be the case, as the Spanish-language rights are basically promised to Univision and just the English-language rights haven’t really wooed anyone.
There are smaller problems. Most fans know that the MLS regular season doesn’t really mean much. 14 teams make the playoffs and the urgency goes out of games but for a handful of teams around the cutline somewhere around June. There are local rivalries that can entice during the season, but MLS can’t throw up a “title decider” like other leagues until its actual title decider of MLS Cup at the end of the playoffs. It all becomes scenery after a while.
And MLS will always face competition. Its spring-summer-fall season sees it navigating the NCAA tournament, NBA and NHL playoffs as it’s getting started and revved up, a brief period where it’s just MLS and MLB, and then the NFL starts and everything gets stomped on. Switching to a European calendar wouldn’t much alleviate this, and MLS has always made a face when it’s been suggested. Same with a single-table, no playoff system for determining a champion that fans see in the rest of the world that would give a season urgency. And don’t even say the word “relegation.”
It’s a copout to get this deep into an article and then say they’re basically fucked. But players are going to continue to chase Euros if they can, the league still needs that transfer money (especially if you buy into the Ponzi scheme theory, and expansion is drying up). Fans will always know the difference. With the league not really ready to undertake something radical, this is kind of where they are. It’s strange that in a country where interest in the sport continues to grow, one of its domestic leagues can’t seem to take advantage.
And looking at MLS’s sister competition, the NWSL, the quality argument seems to be the main one. Just last week, the Challenge Cup match between San Diego Wave and Angel City on CBS proper drew in 456K viewers. And that’s basically a preseason game. But NWSL fans know when they tune in they’re seeing just about the best product available (we can have the WSL and their expanding checkbook debate another time) with players they recognize from World Cups and the Olympics.
Still, if fans are more drawn to the product around the world, maybe MLS should think about making theirs look like the rest of the world. That’s harder to do with soon-to-be 29 teams and maybe even 30, but fans have clearly stated what it is they like. But even then, soccer as a whole remains a niche sport with a niche fandom. And it will probably be a while before that changes.