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Volume 22 No. 49
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Booting up: Networks show increases in first year of MLS’s new media-rights deal

When Univision this spring opened its new eight-year Major League Soccer deal with a Friday night matchup between two of the league’s marquee teams — the Chicago Fire and LA Galaxy — the network put more emphasis into promotion than it had in the past.

On the day of the game, the Spanish-language channel had the hosts for its “Despierta America” morning show wear team jerseys. It set up an SAP feed to attract a bigger English-speaking audience. And it pushed the league to hold the opening kickoff at 10 p.m. ET — “our sweet spot,” said Eric Conrad, senior vice president of sports programming and acquisitions for Univision Deportes.

The resulting audience of 341,000 viewers — about 15 percent of whom were using the English-language SAP feed — was the season’s second-biggest audience for Univision and set the stage for one of the American soccer league’s best television performances in its 21-year history.

While MLS’s viewing numbers remain small compared to the likes of the NFL, NBA and MLB, league and network executives were happy with their results in 2015, the first year of a media-rights deal that saw the league triple its rights fee. All networks showed significant increases versus last year.

The league’s TV numbers were paced by ESPN/ESPN2, which averaged 249,000 viewers for 34 telecasts, up 4 percent from last year. UniMas, the Spanish-language broadcast network owned by Univision, averaged 224,000 viewers for its matches, up 3 percent. Fox Sports 1 averaged 197,000 viewers for 32 telecasts, up 40 percent from the previous year’s games that were on NBCSN.

“We knew for sure that having these three major media companies all investing in the sport only meant good things for the league, the clubs and our fans,” said Seth Bacon, senior vice president of media for MLS and Soccer United Marketing. “Any time you get ratings and they’re up, it’s a good day. But probably the thing we were most excited about wasn’t necessarily total viewership, but the breakdown across demographics. Importantly for ESPN and Fox, the Hispanic audience for its MLS broadcasts was significant, and for Univsion, its growth in non-Hispanic viewers was great.”

Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming, credited a more consistent TV schedule for the gains. Univision carried an exclusive game on Friday nights; local games were carried on various regional sports networks on Saturday nights; ESPN held the 5 p.m. ET window on Sundays; and Fox Sports 1 had the 7 p.m. window on Sundays.

ESPN, Fox and Univision agreed to carry promos created by MLS that pushed viewers to games that were on competing networks. In fact, Bacon said almost 20 percent of ESPN’s MLS audience switched over to watch the Fox telecast later that night.

“We’re starting to see a lot of good trends developing,” Guglielmino said. “Look, it’s a long road, but we’re seeing decent traction.”

ESPN/ESPN2’s average viewership of 249,000 remains well off its MLS high in 2012, when the networks averaged 311,000 viewers. But Guglielmino said ESPN is considering putting more MLS games on ESPN next season rather than ESPN2, a move that should help push viewership numbers even higher. This season, ESPN carried nine matches; ESPN2 had 25.

Fox Sports 1, which carried league games for the first time, credited tentpole events such as Heineken Rivalry Week and Decision Day for its results.

“The league’s marketing tactics were the most collaborative they’ve ever been,” said David Nathanson, head of business operations for Fox Sports. “They all helped raise the profile of the league this year.”

Media executives also praised MLS’s additions this year of two expansion franchises, NYCFC and Orlando City SC, and star players like Kaká and David Villa.

“The addition of the new teams, in particular, helped make the Eastern Conference be more competitive and rival the competition in the West,” Nathanson said.

Nathanson additionally cited a “halo effect” from this summer’s Women’s World Cup, citing the fact that two of Fox Sports 1’s five biggest MLS audiences occurred during the tournament.

Top 5 MLS matches for ESPN/ESPN2 in 2015

Date Teams Start time (ET) Average number of viewers (000s)
Aug. 9 LA Galaxy-Seattle 4:02 p.m. 549
March 8 Orlando City-NYCFC* 4:36 p.m. 539
Aug. 23 LA Galaxy-NYCFC 3:12 p.m. 452
Aug. 30 Seattle-Portland 4:30 p.m. 438
Aug. 16 Seattle-Orlando City* 6:17 p.m. 345

Top 5 MLS matches for FS1 in 2015

Date Teams Start time (ET) Average number of viewers (000s)
July 29 MLS All-Stars-Tottenham 9 p.m. 548
June 14 Orlando City-D.C. United 9 p.m. 378
June 28 Portland-Seattle 7 p.m. 371
Aug. 9 NY Red Bulls-NYCFC 7 p.m. 315
April 26 Seattle-Portland 9:24 p.m. 309

Top 5 MLS matches for UniMas in 2015

Date Teams Start time (ET) Average number of viewers (000s)
Aug. 28 San Jose-LA Galaxy 11 p.m. 356
March 6 LA Galaxy-Chicago 10 p.m. 341
July 10 San Jose-Houston 11 p.m. 330
March 13 Houston-Orlando City 7 p.m. 310
July 29 MLS All-Stars-Tottenham 9 p.m. 285

ESPN2 match
Source: The networks