The MLS has seen unbelievable growth over the past five years. The league has transformed from days where teams were playing in minor league baseball parks to now selling out on next year’s season tickets. However, the MLS has still to conquer one aspect of being a major sports league: the TV ratings.
Saturday’s MLS Cup Final between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake is being reported as having an average viewing audience of 505,000 viewers, down 44% from last year. It’s hard to know what that number means without putting it into context. According to WorldSoccerTalk.com, the MLS Cup on ESPN gathered as many views as an rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond on TBS. It is the least-watched MLS Cup ever on an English-speaking television channel.
However, according to the same report, the Spanish-language channel, UniMas, clocked an average viewing audience of 514,000, which puts the combined number of TV viewers at 1,019,000 overall. The MLS Cup Final in 2012 collected 797,000 viewers on ESPN and 485,000 viewers on UniMas. Accounting for the people who watched through UniMas, it is only a 20.5% decrease from 2012’s numbers. Still, it’s not great.
The good news is that the Cup did beat out the best English Premier League game of the weekend (Arsenal vs. Everton), which only drew 499,000 average viewers.
What does concern the MLS fan though is how the playoffs and championship game were scheduled. There were four games scheduled in ten days for either side of the playoff bracket. It’s too many games played in too short a time. The first leg of the Conference Final between the Houston Dynamo and Sporting KC was hard to watch because the players were so exhausted.
Then, after one of the two Conference Finals were played, there was a two week gap between games. It allowed for international games to be played. It killed any sense of continuation and build-up to the drama of the playoffs.
Once the Conference Finals ended, there was a second two week gap, giving the players and coaches time to prepare for the championship. This isn’t a huge issue — the NFL does the same thing before the Super Bowl — but it becomes a problem when you play the final three games of the postseason over the course of four weeks.
One major factor in the viewing numbers was the TV competition. Sporting KC shares Kansas City with the Missouri Tigers, who were playing in the SEC Championship of college football at the exact same time. Now, there’s no way for the MLS schedule-makers to know that two teams from the same area will make it to a championships that play during the same day and time, but why would they even schedule it for the same weekend as college football’s conference championship in the first place? The MLS does not yet hold the power that football has in country, so why would they set themselves up against such an opponent? The TV ratings are down not because lack of interest, but because of poor luck and scheduling.