MLS: Why plummeting TV ratings are extremely worrying

TV deals for American sports leagues are as green as ever.

League Worth (Dollars) Length through season
NFL 39.6 Billion 2022
NBA 24 Billion 2024-25
MLB 12.4 Billion 2021
NHL 2 Billion 2020-21
MLS 720 Million 2022

However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. TV ratings across all sports have trended south.

For America’s most popular sport, football, the NFL saw an eight percent decline, according to A.J. Perez of USA Today Sports. Even for one of the greatest Super Bowls—Super Bowl 51—between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, there was a slight decline in ratings compared to the last two Super Bowls.

According to Variety‘s Daniel Holloway, in the first year of NBA’s monstrous TV deal, there was a six percent decline in the regular season from the 2015-16 season. However, according to SVG‘s Jason Dachman, in the uneventful playoffs, there was a five percent increase in ratings compared to last year.

America’s pastime, baseball, faces too many issues with pace of play, “a face”, lack of interest from the younger generation, and TV ratings. This is only highlighted by how the 2017 MLB All-Star game finished behind America’s Got Talent’ in viewership, according to Variety‘s Joe Otterson.

On the ice, it was a repeat of the other top three sports leagues. According to Sports Business Daily (via Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated), NHL broadcaster NBC Sports saw a six percent decline in TV and digital ratings.


Viewership down

For the ever growing MLS, news is not good either. According to Christopher Harris (Via Sports TV Ratings and World Soccer Talk), numbers from the first five weeks of the 2017 season, viewership is already down eight percent compared to last season. Even the Premier League saw a decline in TV ratings in the States this past season.

Each sports league has their own issues, but are all facing a difficult challenge with individuals cutting the cord (cable).

For the growth of soccer, still behind the “big four” in almost every category from popularity to importance in culture, this is a massive concern. MLS is still young and growing, but if the other major four are struggling, it is going to be even harder for MLS.

To try and increase viewership, NFL and NBA are changing their televised experience by cutting commercials. NHL does not have such a degree of a problem with their televised broadcast. While MLB, who has the biggest problem with ratings, has their head buried under six feet of sand.


Apparently, MLS does have a plan. And who would have known?

With not much media interest whatsoever, a plan was made known in late May this year. According to World Soccer Talk Christopher Harris, MLS executives sat down with Sports Business Daily and revealed their plan to grow and improve their TV ratings.

1. Putting cameras in the locker rooms before the game

2. Allowing access to team huddles

3. Putting microphones on coaches during games

4. Increasing the number of media “car wash” tours

These proposals might make watching your club, playing across the country a little more exciting. And getting some more exposure to the unknown sports fan with media “car wash” tours is never a bad thing.

It should even improve the watching experience from a neutral fan perspective. But it is absolutely not going to attract or grow viewership and an MLS fan base whatsoever.


MLS isn’t truly addressing what’s wrong the league’s falling TV ratings

For viewers, the majority of MLS play is still too boring. In most cases, the Premier League games out rates MLS games.

For example, according to Awful Announcing’s Douglas Pucci, Premier League matches between April 1-2 averaged 330,000 viewers while the same weekend of games, MLS averaged 168,500 viewers.

It should be noted these numbers are not the best to compare as Premier League games are more available to the public via online, and this particular weekend was highlighted by Arsenal-Manchester City (631,000 viewers). MLS only broadcasted two games.

However, the 2017 opening match on ESPN between NYCFC-Orlando City only generated 462,000 on viewership.


Lacking in star power

Then, the league lacks stardom throughout the league. They tend to congregate in a few markets—hence, the same teams are always broadcasted.

Although there is an attempt to broadcast every team fairly, clubs are still too regional. Without superstars, out of market games do not generate buzz.

MLS regular season does not hold the same meaning anymore with 54% of clubs qualifying for the playoffs. Without real meaning to the games (no promotion/relegation) for the majority of the season, the games have less excitement.

To be fair, MLS does have a good product and it can be riveting.


Need to address the core issues

MLS just spent 18 months researching solutions to falling TV ratings.  

A plan that appears to be more about their obsession with expansion and an appeasement to the networks than addressing the real problems listed above.

One does have to wonder what the league is doing at times. Hopefully they have more ideas to attack the core problems.


Written by Steven Jotterand

Follow Steven on Twitter @StevenJotterand

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