SBJ/Nov. 4-10, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Attendance strong, but MLS sees TV dip

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Major League Soccer completed its 2013 regular season feeling good about its attendance despite a slight decline at the gate, but it is faced with decisions on how to improve its lagging television ratings.

With an average of 18,611 fans per match across its 19 clubs, MLS this year exceeded the 18,000 mark for the second time in its history. It likely would have set a record high for a second consecutive season were it not for the continued struggles of Chivas USA, whose average slid 36 percent this year, to a league-low 8,366 per game.

Seattle Sounders FC set a record high for MLS club attendance for the fifth consecutive season, averaging 44,038 fans per game.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Seattle Sounders FC set a record high for MLS club attendance for the fifth consecutive season, averaging 44,038 fans per game, a 2 percent increase over 2012 at CenturyLink Field.

Ten clubs experienced increases in attendance, led by Columbus, which averaged 16,080 fans per game during its first season under new owner Anthony Precourt, up almost 12 percent from last season. Of the eight clubs besides Chivas USA sustaining dips, Montreal had the steepest drop, falling 9.5 percent to an average of 20,603. Still, that average was fourth-best in the league, behind only Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland.

Joining Chivas USA in the bottom three at the gate were San Jose, which averaged 12,765 fans but plans to move into its own soccer-specific stadium in 2015; and D.C. United (13,646), which is finalizing plans for its own new stadium but stumbled on the field this season to a league-worst record of 3-24-7.

What also might be in the league’s future is a change in the way MLS schedules games for broadcast with national partners ESPN and NBC after this year’s marks came in down from 2012.

Audiences for the 20 matches on ESPN/ESPN2 in 2013 — mostly on Sunday evenings — dropped 29 percent, from an average of 311,000 in 2012 to 220,000 this season. The decline comes one season after ESPN had its best MLS numbers since the league’s inception in 1996.

The ratings drop-off was not as bad at NBCSN, thanks in part to hefty promotion from the network’s first season with the English Premier League, but audiences were still relatively small. Across 37 MLS games, NBCSN averaged 112,000 viewers this season, an 8 percent decrease from 2012. After the Premier League debuted on NBCSN in August, the network averaged 132,000 viewers for its MLS broadcasts.

“The Premier League has proven to be a tremendous promotional platform for MLS,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBCSN. “Without question, MLS has received more promotion from our Premier League coverage than any sports property on NBC Sports Network.”

Now that MLS has established strong attendance in most markets and has become successful enough to establish a goal of expanding to 24 teams by 2020, NBC and ESPN believe the time is right for the league to seek solutions to improve its national TV ratings.

“In a very cluttered sports broadcasting landscape, sometimes it’s difficult to break through,” said Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president of programming at ESPN. “We have to find the right scheduling mix of what works for MLS from both an attendance and national TV perspective.”

One possibility is flex scheduling, as NBC has with the NFL for its “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts beginning in the 11th week of the season.

“We have strongly urged MLS to consider a flex-scheduling concept,” Miller said. “With good reason, MLS’s focus has been on attendance and getting local television deals. I think they know now that national television should be a priority. Hopefully, the league will work with the club owners to make something like flex scheduling a reality.”

Guglielmino also was in favor of flex scheduling.

“As with any sport, stories develop as you get closer to the playoffs,” Guglielmino said. “As a national broadcaster, you want to provide the fans with the most important games and best stories.”

MLS traditionally has set its full national broadcast schedule at the start of the season, and those games slated for national broadcast are generally unchanged as the year progresses.

MLS President Mark Abbott was unavailable at press time to discuss his reaction to the networks’ ideas.

The league’s deals with NBC and ESPN expire after the 2014 season. Both Miller and Guglielmino said their networks want to extend their partnerships with the league.

Austin Karp is assistant managing editor at SportsBusiness Daily.

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