SBJ/June 11 - 17, 2007/This Weeks News

League, ESPN advise patience on MLS ratings

Despite heavy promotion from ESPN and a great deal of momentum from David Beckham at the start of the season, MLS ratings remain more comparable to those of the WNBA than to Major League Baseball or the NBA.

ESPN reports a 0.2 average household cable
rating for “MLS Primetime Thursday.”

Executives from MLS and ESPN, which is in the first year of an eight-year, $64 million commitment to the league, caution patience and expect ratings to rise once designated players Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Cuauhtemoc Blanco of the Chicago Fire arrive in July.

As of last week, ESPN was reporting a 0.2 average household cable rating for its branded “MLS Primetime Thursday,” through seven of the 26 games it will broadcast on ESPN2 this season. That number is flat with the average for 10 ESPN2 telecasts of MLS through the same period last year, but it trails MLB, which averaged a 1.35 over the same period on ESPN, and equals the WNBA, which averaged a 0.2 on ESPN2 last year.

Before the season, ESPN executives declined to specify their ratings expectations for MLS but said they expected growth because of the promotion and exclusivity of “MLS Primetime Thursday” broadcasts.

MLS and ESPN executives believe the exclusive broadcast window will attract more viewers during the summer, following the NBA playoffs, when the sports landscape is less cluttered.

“I don’t think things like this happen overnight when you’re trying to build a day-in-the-week franchise for the sport,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s vice president of programming. “Yes, we’re promoting. Yes, we’re providing ancillary coverage. But there are a lot of other places for people to spend their time.”

MLS President Mark Abbott called for patience, saying, “As we establish a new time period and build overall awareness about the games over the course of the whole season, I expect we’ll see growth. Nothing we see now surprises us.”

Throughout the season, ESPN has put significant promotional energy behind the new time slots, taking out advertisements on the front page of USA Today, touting games with 30-second TV ads and highlighting game times on ESPN.com.

Though ratings are flat with what MLS averaged the last three years, the number of household viewers is up 10 percent from last year to 207,552 households. ESPN also has seen growth in the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic it targeted when it invested in the sport. Ratings are up 67 percent in that category to a 0.3 average this year.

“We’re getting the right people to watch,” Guglielmino said, “but we’ve got to get more of the right people.”

Compared with other ESPN soccer programming this year, MLS ratings are on par with the 0.2 average the network drew for the UEFA Champions League regular season that ended in February, but they trail the 0.3 average of the UEFA playoffs that ended two weeks ago. Those games were played at 2:30 p.m. ET on weekdays, while most people work.

The strongest rating for ESPN2 came for its first game, when the Los Angeles Galaxy hosted FC Dallas at 10 p.m. ET on April 12. The game pulled a 0.3 household rating and netted 270,453 households. It led all seven games this season among males ages 18 to 34, as well, pulling a 0.7 rating.

Guglielmino said ESPN will continue to promote the Thursday night games and look for editorial stories that highlight the league on TV and in the magazine. Its current slogan is: “You’re a fan. You just don’t know it yet.”

“We’re aiming at all the right things and are going to stick to it,” Guglielmino said. “We’re going to see growth.”

The league expects both ratings and attendance to increase when Beckham and Blanco arrive in July, Abbott said. Other designated players have already begun playing, including the New York Red Bulls’ Juan Pablo Angel and Claudio Reyna and the Columbus Crew’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

The league has tried to help drive attendance on Thursday nights by working with partners Adidas and Budweiser to promote the games in local markets a week in advance. At an average of 14,133, however, attendance for those games is 5 percent below the league average this year and 5 percent below Saturday games televised last year.

“It’s an area we need to focus on,” Abbott said. “There are a lot of advantages to a Thursday night prime-time schedule and we’re committed to that. We’re working to build audiences in the stadiums on Thursdays.”

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