So in Part 1 of my post "State of the League"posts I offered up my thoughts on the unbalanced schedule, I am clearly not a fan, but now I would like to take a look at an area that has become something I am very excited about. While I do not like the approach of featuring mainly big market team (New York, LA, Seattle) on the national TV networks, I think the numbers this year have to be considered as well.
So the new TV deal with NBC/NBC Sports Net (currently Versus) is coming next year and Don took time to thank the folks at Fox Soccer for all they have done for the sport (FYI to Fox Soccer- you really should cover US Open Cup next year). I have a jaded opinion of Fox Soccer in part due to the fact that Comcast just added them in HD in my market last month so without the HD version it has been painful to watch for the last couple years. I also know that as long as Fox Soccer remained in the sports tier that they would never have the reach that the league needed to help it grow.
Good news is that viewership of MLS was up this year:
ESPN and ESPN2 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (311) are up 16% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (268)
Fox SoccerMLS regular season final avg. total viewers (70) are up 26% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (56)
TelefuturaMLS regular season final avg. total viewers (233) are up 10% than 2010 MLS regular season final avg. total viewers (211)
It is also good to note that both ESPN and Fox Soccer saw big growth in the key 18-34 male demographic a key indicator for advertising and sponsors.
more thoughts after the jump:
When we look closer at those numbers some interesting things appear, first ESPN/2 were given the more "premier/big market" matches so I would expect their numbers to be better, ESPN also has a 3 times larger install base so their numbers by default should be at least 3x larger.
I really have mixed feelings about ESPN/2 featuring almost exclusively matches with the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy, and Seattle Sounders. While this year those large markets clearly played a role in the ratings going up, they also help improve their brand, sell more merchandise, and attract more sponsors and bigger sponsor deals, which will put other teams at a disadvantage. There is a rare balance that MLS must obtain with it's TV partners, in most leagues there are lucrative local TV contracts that compliment a national deal, but this isn't always the case in MLS.
When you look at the TV numbers I mentioned above, consider this:
ESPN/2 is in 100 million households in the US, that means that just under 1/3 of 1 percent of the potential viewers watched MLS on their network.
Fox Soccer is in 32 million households in the US, just under 1/4 of 1 percent of the potential viewers watched MLS on their network.
If those numbers hold true then MLS will should see an average of 150K or better watching matches on NBC Sports Net if nothing changes as the network reaches 75 million households. That means that advertisers and sponsors will see a 50% increase in the number of people who will see their MLS ads over Fox Soccer, and that is a very good thing. Now that number is important for the future of MLS, remember that NBC Sports Net also covers the NHL, who have a much larger deal than does MLS.
The NHL saw a nice increase in their TV ratings last year to an average of 353,000 viewers, the NHL gets over $70 million dollars a year from their TV deal with NBC/NBC Sports Net. Folks that is the kind of money that could change MLS in a very good way. I think NBC with their Olympic coverage this summer could really build some great numbers for MLS if the US qualify and do well at the 2012 games. Unlike ESPN I can see NBC doing a much better job of trying to connect the nationalism that brings such huge number on TV to the local product, in this case MLS.
The future of MLS is in TV revenues (which I consider to include both TV and online video streaming), it is what will allow larger stadium, a higher salary cap, and many of the things that the league will need to meet the stated goal of being one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. I believe we are heading in the right direction, the fact that NBC/NBC Sports Net has said they will but at least two matches on their main NBC network and while I have to believe that those will likely either be MLS Cup and the MLS All Star match, or one of those and a New York Red Bulls vs. Los Angeles Galaxy match. I believe that they will push ESPN/2 to a higher level as well, by showing 38 regular season matches on NBC Sports Net, I have to believe that ESPN/2 will up their number from 21 to a higher number as well. All of this points to positive territory for MLS.
OFF MY SOAPBOX