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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 USA – Houston 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.