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Volume 23 No. 8
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Better TV windows boost viewership for MLS

ESPN ratings, viewership for MLS playoff games are up as the matches are now played midweek.
MLS’s television ratings still pale in comparison to its professional league peers, but it can point to another increase in viewership as further proof of the league’s growth.

In total, the 2017 MLS regular season had 26.3 million gross viewers across all U.S. networks, up 4 percent from 2016 and up 41 percent since the 2014 season, according to the league and network figures. It signed its current media rights deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision, which runs through 2022, after that season. Rising ratings have become more rare in sports of late, and MLS says it is the only league in North America to show consistent viewership growth since 2014.

“When we think about the way the media landscape is changing, not just in sports but across the board, we’re really proud that we’re showing growth, and are extremely bullish on that growth going forward,” said Seth Bacon, MLS senior vice president of media.

MLS broadcasts on Fox saw a 5 percent increase and Univision networks an 8 percent increase in average viewership for this past season. The average viewership of MLS broadcasts on ESPN networks was down less than 1 percent, although broadcasts on ESPN and ESPN2 individually had year-over-year increases of 1 percent and 9 percent, respectively. According to MLS, viewership on TSN/CTV and TVA in Canada were both up 8 percent over the previous year, following new five-year deals with both broadcasters in January.

Internationally, MLS is now seen live in 170 countries. The league did not comment on viewership for those territories.

First Look podcast, with MLS discussion beginning at the 18:40 mark:

Many of the league’s gains on television can be directly attributed to the increased availability of its games. Last season, MLS had six matches on the main Univision network for the first time, as well as five matches on Fox’s broadcast network. In recent years, ESPN has shifted the bulk of its MLS broadcasts to ESPN instead of ESPN2.

“With scheduling, we were smarter about it than we think we’ve been in the past, in terms of the way we schedule and trying to take advantage of the windows and opportunities we have with our partners,” Bacon said. “We’ve been spending a lot of effort doing fan research and analysis of our ratings so that we have a real data-driven schedule, and I think this growth in viewership is the result of that.”

Scott Guglielmino, ESPN senior vice president of programming and X Games, noted how MLS worked closely with broadcasters to set up the best matches in the broadcast windows. He also said that storylines across the league like the success of Atlanta United FC helped to drive ratings, something he expects will continue next season with the debut of Los Angeles FC.

Ratings for the playoff matches are up as well, which Guglielmino said is part of that flexibility on the part of MLS. While the regular-season broadcasts are often focused around Sundays and weekends, MLS playoffs matches have been featured midweek this year rather than going head to head with the NFL and other sports in season. ESPN is up 50 percent in playoff viewership year-over-year to date.

Guglielmino also noted that using Nielsen’s out-of-home measurement, MLS broadcasts receive a significant 18 percent increase on top of the calculated viewership.

“The numbers really speak for themselves,” Guglielmino said. “It’s terrific to see what is still a young league continue to progress.”

MLS advertising inventory across ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision was also sold out across the regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup, according to Bacon. Guglielmino said the demographics that MLS draws, on top of the scarcity of available advertising around soccer broadcasts, has helped drive advertiser interest.