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Americans Love To Watch Soccer, Just Not MLS

A few days ago I lamented the fact that MLS attendance had declined in 2008. While the idea of the league’s attendance numbers stagnating concerned me, nothing could have disheartened me more than an article I read in this month’s Sports Business Journal.

According to the article, Americans didn’t just avoid attending MLS games in person this year, they also stopped watching them on TV. While the Beckham Bump had pushed viewership of ESPN2’s Primetime Thursday up to approximately 290,000 viewers per week last year, in 2008 the number of average viewers dramatically fell to 250,000 (a 14% dip). Moreover, the 2008 TV ratings are actually lower than the average number of viewers back in the B.B. (before Becks) era. Heck, they’re actually lower than they were a decade ago in 1998.

This cannot please Commissioner Garber & Co. MLS did worse in ESPN2’s Thursday night primetime slot than bowling tournaments and World Series of Poker re-runs. Yes, re-runs.

Do Americans simply hate soccer? Would they actually rather watch people bowl or a bunch of ugly mugs play cards and talk trash than watch “the beautiful game”?

Obviously not.

How do I know. Well, just look at the EPL TV ratings on Fox Soccer Channel. Now, FSC had never done ratings until this year, so there was a lot of speculation about what those numbers would reveal when they were finally compiled and released. Well, they say numbers don’t lie, and if that’s true, then it’s clear FSC is doing quite well and attracting quite a few soccer fans that MLS simply can’t get to accept its product.

Despite the fact that approximately only 30% of the homes that have ESPN2 also have FSC, FSC has been averaging 211,000 fans a week for its EPL games. By contrast, the Saturday night MLS game on FSC has averaged only 30,000 viewers. In fact, a Chivas USAHouston Dynamo game earlier this year shockingly drew only 24,000 viewers, which shows up on the stat sheet as a 0.0 share. Sadly, infomercials (yes, I couldn’t believe it either, but its true) drew more viewers in the same time slot.

What does this mean?

It means Americans will watch soccer, but they want to watch competitive, entertaining soccer. Now, I am not saying MLS is neither competitive nor entertaining, but to the average American sports fan (“Joe Sports Fan”, if you’ll induldge one last election reference), it sure isn’t as much fun to watch as poker or bowling I guess, which is a real shame. Arsenal – Liverpool? Now that they’ll watch. Heck, they’ll even watch Sunderland – Portsmouth. But San Jose – Toronto? “Hmm, hey look honey, that Bowflex infomercial with Chuck Norris is on again!”

MLS can’t blame ESPN & FSC, who both have promoted the league, or its dandy time slots on those channels. After all, over 1,000,000 Americans watched the Man U – Chelsea Champion’s League Final on ESPN in 2008, and it started at 2:45 p.m. on a Thursday when most Americans were (supposed to be) at work. The problem is clearly not us, it’s MLS.

MLS has put its typical spin on the situation and blathered about how it’s not worried about the numbers because its building a “grassroots” network of fans and how the fight for relevance as a sports league in the U.S. is “a marathon and not a sprint.” MLS may be right, too.

But at some point during a marathon, a runner either has to make his “kick” and move toward the front of the pack (like the NFL did in the early 70’s), or slow his pace and finish with the also-rans (I’m talking about you, Hockey). MLS can now try to deny the Beckham deal was that “kick”, but its pretty clear that they went all-in when they brought Becks to the league with so much fanfare. MLS is currently in the back of the U.S. sports peleton (yikes, mixing sports metaphors now at an alarming rate) and it’s staring at the fat asses of professional bowlers and poker players. Trust me, that’s not a pretty sight.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • bg November 27, 2008, 1:08 pm

    You forgot to mention ESPN Deportes numbers for MLS tv ratings. Actually, if you add those numbers, you should be close to the 2007 numbers. If MLS attendance is down, it is mainly due to the serious financial crises. This is the worst recession since the Great Depression. Consumers for the first time are saving their money. Unemployment will reach about 8.5-9% by sometimes next year. So, let’s be fair and understand the effects of the economic slowdown. For example, movie business is down 35% from last year. People are buying less jewelry. Consumer electronic stores are cutting the prices on their tv’s. Macy’s and Saks are already cutting prices about 60-75%. We are heading into the worst deflation, not inflation, of the past 50 years. These are numbers and facts. Consumer confidence was the lowest ever in this country since that index was created. To suffice, all of this effects discretionary income including concerts and sporting events.

  • Lou November 15, 2008, 5:29 pm

    Excellent article and my thoughts are similar. While the MLS should be concerned about the low ratings the fact that ESPN draws audience for soccer will ensure the continual interest in MLS by ESPN. ESPN and it’s family of channels has space and time to fill and MLS does that for them. The problem is that MLS with it’s summer schedule in the US/Canada especially on Saturdays will have very little TV viewership. When the weather is colder more people will watch but that is when American football NCAA/NFL takes over and MLS is left only to the hard core fan.
    I’m from Chicago and all Fire league games are televised on one channel or another. Let me say that a Fire game is a great time and well worth the money. Even the cheap seats bring one a great view. Yet, in days of HD TV and a bad economy the best seat in the house is really in your living room. Bottom line is that MLS needs bigger names to attract a big viewership.

  • Brian November 15, 2008, 12:50 pm

    I like all soccer, I don’t care where it is played, what country it is played in, or who is playing it. That being said, do I have preferences as to which league I’ll watch before which league? Yes, when it comes to tv, I’ll watch Serie A over pretty much all other leagues, but I’ll also watch MLS over EPL, because MLS is my league, and really I’d rather watch Columbus v. Chicago over Wigan v. Bolton any day. When it comes to live soccer, MLS is on top because I live in a MLS market, and I cover the local team. Of course, the fact that I’m in Houston and primarily watch the Dynamo probably makes me bias, but I can live with that. This weekend though, the big match is in the Eternal City on Sunday – Roma v. Lazio.

  • kaidez November 13, 2008, 1:25 pm

    Great article! And I sadly agree.

    Sunderland – Portsmouth? At this point, I’d watch Derby County-Tottenham before I watch an MLS game.

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