Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Competitive Myth

Change to the MLS competitive format is way past due.

Updating my cable sports television rating spreadsheet this morning I discovered a few things. 1st: I took my Google doc over to Excel. She was getting a bit unwieldy at 18,571 rows of viewership data. 2nd: ESPN year over year MLS ratings are speaking to us in a loud voice saying that there are no more people watching than five and ten years ago.

Let's use ESPN / ESPN2 average viewership by season has our jumping off point today.

YEAR : AVG Viewers* in 000
2007 : 289
2008 : 253
2009 : 299
2010 : 253
2011 : 292
2012 : 311

2015 : 256
2016 : 281

*trusting Wiki on the old data. Last two years are my own pulled from

There are outside factors that drive these numbers slightly up and slightly down year to year, but you can clearly see that they've basically been about the same. I don't have game by game for the years before 2015 but I can say that the jump from last year to this is due to the fact that almost all games have been on ESPN proper.

Regardless. The story is the same. 260-300 viewers a game for the last decade. There's no traction here and the only silver lining that I can see is that ratings haven't completely died.

At least on ESPN, they haven't.

Over on Fox Sports 1, I'm tracking a year over year loss of about 30k viewers on average (198k in 2015, 165k in 2016). This might explain why we saw Fox put a couple games on their over the air channels last weekend as they need to get that 30k back and start getting the ship pointed back in the right direction.


Anyone that has paid attention to the league over time knows that MLS tinkers with their playoff format often. From three-game series to having a Western Conference team winning the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket, they have tried just about every cockamamy idea that has popped into their head.

The reason for this is that nothing seems to goose the ratings during a busy part of the US sports calendar. Games, whether they are April regular season games or November playoffs, get about the same number of viewers. Nothing seems to work.

One of the arguments for a robust playoff system is that it keeps people's interest in the late part of the season and will increase attention on the league as it finishes up. It works for every other league in the USA, but there are no numbers that I can see that tell us this is true for MLS.

More specifically, ratings for the playoffs last year were actually about 40% (!) lower than those in the middle of the season. How is this league, working within the universe of centralized control of teams, ever going to get new people to watch if they can't corral viewers when their better teams are playing?

Even the MLS Cup final has been trending downward since the late '90s. Last year is was in the 600's on ESPN. That's a number that MLS can get by placing games right after an English Premier League matchup.

The argument one could make is that it is entirely possible that just adding extra regular season games and having the East play the West winner in a Final (or, heaven forbid, playing a balanced schedule and awarding the team with the most points the winner) keeps ratings from bottoming out during the NFL and October MLB. If this is the case then why not flip the calendar, throw in a winter break (filled with neutral sites in warm cities hosting US Open Cup games!) and have the playoffs in late spring / summer in great weather? That makes perfect sense, right? RIGHT?


Whenever I write a post like this I inevitably wind up getting frustrated with the whole process, clicking Save and closing it out. I'm to that point right now, as a matter of fact. What is it that ultimately gets me? It's that MLS doesn't have to do anything to continue on going the way it is. They are set with a parent company called Soccer United Marketing that owns the rights to just about every tournament in the United States as well as the rights to the Mexican team that now plays the majority of their games in the US.

Another mechanism powering the current crummy, uninteresting and un-watched competitive model MLS has (that lives somewhere between regular season college softball games and bass fishing) is that they have plenty of room for more teams and lucrative expansion fees. At last check, most domestic professional leagues have 30-32 teams. MLS can live off of future fees for the next 30 years if they play their cards right (and FIFA doesn't check in on page 66, article 9). All they have to do is to keep on... existing.

Or, at least, that's what I've always sort of figured. I always run into this wall in a post like this. But what if these ratings aren't enough? What if the larger sports business world notices by watching games that their attendance reports aren't quite within industry standards ? What if sponsorships flatline? What if investors don't see the return after 24 teams enter? What if low quality of play kills off any remaining viewers in the next five years?

I think those types of questions is what keeps MLS chugging along, doing what it's been doing. The risk that comes with real change is too great. Plenty of open slots for expansion and Soccer United Marketing is as strong as ever. Who needs to rely on a strong competition format?

No comments: