|[from the Sports Business Journal]|
What follows below is how, in a conversational voice, MLS handles these two measurements of success in terms of reporting. It's based on my own observations of the league and careful tracking of MLS ratings via Sports TV Ratings over the last two years.
1. ATTENDANCE REPORTING
Is the stadium full or not? Are you reporting that it is? Are you using these numbers in your analysis?
MLS likes to report the way most of the other leagues in the United States report. Tickets Distributed. But what sets MLS apart from the other US based leagues is that they heavily discount, bundle and/or freely give out tickets in hopes to fill the stadium and tell a good story. While there is no doubt that teams track turnstile, it is not widely (or consistently) reported.
Over the years in following and writing about the league I've heard as high as 30% of tickets distributed go unused. Unfortunately, those exact numbers are locked away. Good news, however. Much to the chagrin of stat trackers of the world, we don't need this number. All we need is to turn on the TV and watch the games to observe that a large percentage people don't show.
Turn on a MLS match in Colorado, Chicago, DC, Dallas, Houston, San Jose, NY (Red Bulls) or New England this year and you would have likely seen a stadium only around 50-75% full. Yet, if you were to read the match report afterward or wonder over to Wiki to check the updated season averages, you'd see these teams reporting 75-100% capacity.
There is a second aspect to MLS attendance reporting that the other leagues based in the US do not have to deal with; the rest of the world. What's common practice in the US is not in foreign leagues. In top leagues or when dealing with top clubs, you don't get the same amount of attention to attendance as you do with MLS because the games are of high quality and/or they are clearly well attended. Put another way, if you are watching on TV, it passes the smell test.
In the English lower divisions you see that attendance is taken like school or church. Actual attendance. It's usually reported as X amount for the home side and Y for traveling support. There is a sense of real pride that comes with bodies that show up vs. a sort of cattle call in MLS.
MLS does have teams that fill up stadiums. Games at Seattle and Orlando are consistently full and, though there was erosion this year, Portland, Montreal and Vancouver aren't far behind.
So, how should MLS attendance be tracked? Certainly not using exact numbers like we see from press releases and most certainly not from people taking those numbers and trying to derive anything from them. A number that isn't rounded for "attendance" that isn't actually tracking attendance, but "tickets distributed" is more or less used for legitimacy. "Attendance: 13,298" sounds much more official than "Tickets Distributed 13,298" in a post game report.
Reporting a tickets distributed number isn't a big problem for the majority of US pro sports. NFL, NBA and NHL figures, by and large, pass the visual test. 15,628 at that last Columbus Blue Jackets game? Sure, maybe a little high. But 15,628 at that last Chicago Fire game? No. That is a good 10k off. And this is a problem. The Problem.
2. TV VIEWERSHIP
A straight forward measurement made complex by MLS to mask a drop in numbers.
TV viewership is much more clearcut in terms of how the league is performing in the larger world. There are well-established measurement systems and loads of independent forces living and dying with each day with the reports. This leaves very little room for fudging, but that does not stop PR firms from around the world trying to spin the numbers in a positive light.
An example of spinning the numbers to show growth is represented in a recent World Soccer Talk piece and over at Socccer America.
In the former, they wound up combining ESPN + ESPN2 + ESPN Deportes and compared it against... a number I can't figure out, no matter how I run the numbers. With Soccer America they just posted figures given to them by MLS. 279k for ESPN and ESPN2, which is different than the World Soccer Talk number of ~308k (actual was 261k via my records sourced from sportstvratings.com) and 236k for Fox / FS1 that includes the over the air broadcast.
What this leaves us with us with is two influential US soccer outlets reporting a confusing (which it gets when you are making the numbers dance in a way they should not) array of different figures, but trying to tell the story MLS wants.
Just like attendance, massaging the numbers is not necessarily illegal in the sports world. It's a common practice. Leagues and business want to tell a good story for their fans and customers. They all thirst for the precious momentum that will actually propel them into success, but there are real problems associated with this practice.
Outside of the general heartburn MLS just making things up gives long-time fans / observers of soccer in the United States, the problem with playing around with numbers is that communities and cities start making expensive decisions based off of the fluffy data MLS provides. In fact, we already have cities and towns that acted on these numbers (Bridgeview, Illinois and Harrison, New Jersey) that otherwise might have pumped the brakes had they searched out honest information.
You also have sponsors who partner with the league based on the figures given to them. Heck, ESPN, Fox and Univision likely bought in based on general misinformation.
Is it good that MLS got broadcast on the over the air network and that ESPN and not ESPN2 are carrying more games? Of course. But, if you are tracking and reporting correctly, these two actions are to help the league gain footing and not because there is huge demand for it.
3. FINAL THOUGHTS
MLS can get away with a lot because of their relatively small size. Not only in the US sports landscape (including, importantly, college athletics), but the global one as well. Spend some time with an average MLS fan and you'll find that even defenders of the league watch very little of it. Taking it one step further, you'd be surprised to find that from my time writing and podcasting over the years that folks you think watch, do not. We are talking big voices.
For the most part, I believe people are starting to look at things more honestly and the analysis is getting better. There's a long way to go.
Since I started putting this post together the LA Times published a piece called "MLS math doesn't always add up" that discusses the same topics I covered above. It confirms some of the figures listed above in regards to attendance. This is the sort of thing that happens when there is too much distance between PR and reality.