Thursday, November 12, 2015

MLS Final - Want vs Need

MLS does not hide their desire to have good teams playing in big markets. Los Angeles is the biggest beneficiary of top talent with Toronto and NY (Red Bulls normally or City FC) not far behind. Ever since Seattle joined, they too have landed huge stars. For the most part, it has worked the way MLS wanted as the LA Galaxy have been in almost half (9/19) the finals across league history, which includes appearances in three of the last four (winning each).

Is that the right recipe, though? TV ratings for the MLS Cup final (the league's highest-rated match of the year) have generally declined since 1996. Part of that is due to the move from ABC to ESPN, but those games have been steadily shrinking since the switch over in 2009.

To help turn this around the league gave in and allowed two channels to carry the final last year. It worked as far as eyes on the game. At first glance you would think that it was the star-heavy team in LA and the large market in New England that drove the uptick in ratings - ESPN pulled 1.0 million, it's best since 2009, and Unimas pulled another 0.7 - but in reality it was likely just one of those stars that helped it out... a retiring USMNT star in Landon Donovan.

MLS is trying out the same approach this year, only the final will be missing Donovan. Both ESPN and Unimas will televise the match. It means more viewers for sure but the potential matchups this year are far from what they had last year (not to mention what the weather might be in a couple of those cities).

Two years ago Sporting KC hosted Real Salt Lake. The game was broadcast on ESPN and it pulled a miserable rating of 500k viewers. Two lesser known teams in mid-sized markets with no crossover national team stars (sorry Zusi and Besler) played in bad soccer weather conditions.

There is a real possibility that this year the league could see a similar matchup. Even if the NY Red Bulls beat out Crew SC and host the final, they don't have the star power of 2014 LA (or 2012, or 2011 LA). The big market, yes. That checks off one box, but they miss on big names and good weather. None of this is to mention that the game starts at 4 pm in the middle of a NFL afternoon (in a previous post I noted what the NFL does to MLS ratings, see links at bottom).

This adds up to bad news for MLS on the TV ratings front. No matter the matchup in the final, fewer people will be watching this year.

How many fewer? Here is a look at where the teams remaining fell during the regular season across all networks on ESPN and FS1 (pulled out UniMás, as good as ratings were, their cable reach measurably less - different market as well, will get a separate post in the future).

MLS likely wants a Portland at NY Red Bulls Final

The bright side of this situation for MLS is they type of soccer that can be played by the four remaining teams. Each one of the remaining teams try to play the sport. It might not always be pretty, but they aren't out there hoofing it (Houston) around or fouling the hell out of the opponent (KC).

You can't overstate the power that Landon Donovan had last year for both the English and Spanish-speaking audience. There are many issues MLS brings on themselves in terms of scheduling, competition format, rules, etc... but one thing they'll get right this year is having the "right" teams in the final.

The league might not be happy with the ratings and the regulars out in the media world will go deep on what didn't work in the shadow of bad ratings, but there is good that will happen in that final.

It might not be what they want, but it will be a little taste of what they need.

Now... about this competition format.

This post is part of my continued look at MLS TV ratings this year. For a couple recent thoughts on the subject, check out:

MLS TV Ratings Flat in Playoffs
Over There is a League
NFL Decimates MLS TV Ratings

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