U.S.-based Major League Soccer playing in the shadow of global teams

Patrons at Chicago's Globe Pub watch the 2014 MLS Cup Final. Nick Kariuki/ Medill
Patrons at Chicago’s Globe Pub watch the 2014 MLS Cup Final. Nick Kariuki/ Medill

By Nick Kariuki

The large group at Chicago’s Globe Pub, many sporting jerseys from soccer teams all over the country, was focused on Sunday’s Major League Soccer Cup Final — and the craft beers they were sipping. Soccer scarves from around the world mounted the walls, along with signed, framed photos and jerseys.

Unfortunately, although both teams had made exciting playoff runs to reach the final, neither the Los Angeles Galaxy nor the New England Revolution were playing at their best in the big game. Viewers in the pub began to voice their frustration at the misplaced passes and what seemed like both teams inability to keep the ball on the ground.

“It’s like watching little kids play soccer,” one patron remarked.

Still, the Globe was packed for the final in its side bar and back room. That’s quite an achievement considering it coincided with the football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders in another section of the bar (the bar is also a 49ers spot). All of the back room TVs and four of the side bar’s ten played the soccer final, and the sounds of the raucous atmosphere at the Carson, Calif. stadium could be heard in both rooms.

Even without a Midwestern team in the final, the Globe “seemed to have double its viewership.” Pattrick Stanton, manager at the Globe Pub said after the game. “That’s a take-away for sure.”

The MLS is America’s top professional league, and its TV audience is growing. In fact, the league will start the 2015 season with new eight-year television deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision worth a combined $90 million per year. Although modest compared with the huge rights deals broadcasters strike with U.S. sports like baseball and football, the new MLS contract is five times more valuable than the league’s previous TV-rights deals.

Some figures suggest that the league’s rising viewership is due at least in part stateside TV companies decision to increase their coverage of foreign competitions like the English Premier League and the World Cup.

This is encouraging for the league, given its gulf in perceived quality with leagues like the EPL, though some argue that this help is more of a poisoned chalice: the success of the leagues fueling MLS viewership is also a threat to overshadow the U.S. product

The biggest issue with the American league’s growth in TV audience is that it is still low relative to the mainstream sports in the market.

“These percentage increases for the MLS are off a very low base and they suggest that the MLS is really struggling to attract viewers,” said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and coauthor of the book “Soccernomics”. “The fact that they can only do so off of the back of showing a foreign league in their market is extremely worrying.”

“On the one hand they had a significant increase in viewership,” echoed Allen Sanderson, economics professor at the University of Chicago. “But it’s in terms of viewership for the MLS or the WNBA … pretty minor sports.”

What’s more, the greater coverage of the EPL may have helped to draw fans to the MLS, but it also has eclipsed it with its own rapidly increasing viewership, leaving U.S. soccer chasing to even be the domestic broadcast market’s most popular soccer.

Average World Cup viewership since USA '94
Average World Cup viewership since USA ’94 (photo courtesy of Fifa)

The MLS kicked off in 1996. It is a very young league compared to its 126-year-old English counterpart, which was restructured in 1992 with the television deals that have helped it to become the richest league in world football. In June, Deloitte reported the EPL’s global revenue at $4.19 billion. The MLS’s revenues are dwarfed in comparison. EPL sides can afford to draw and pay a more talented level of professionals, leading to a highly competitive and more entertaining level of soccer for viewers to watch.

As a result, the EPL has had far better viewing numbers than the MLS. NBC and NBCSN’s combined average for its inaugural season of EPL coverage was 438,000 viewers. As of early December, this season, the league’s average is at 492,000, 17 percent more than the same stage last year.

Before the new TV deal, the MLS was carried by ESPN and NBC, with Spanish-language coverage on Univision and ESPN Deportes.

For the 2014 season, MLS viewership on ESPN increased 9 percent to 240,000, on its ESPN and ESPN2 channels. ESPN Deportes also jumped 31 percent to 42,000.

On NBC, MLS saw similar increases. The network’s coverage over 38 games saw viewership rise by 26 percent to 141,000 viewers.

“It was a great season: It was very compelling,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in December’s State of the League roundtable. “Our playoffs were perhaps the best that we’ve ever had. Our television ratings over the last couple of weeks were the best we have had leading up to a game that we’re all very excited about.”

NBC is the only broadcaster that can show both the EPL and the MLS. This season, nine of the MLS games were led in by either an EPL match or “shoulder programming” that supplemented the league’s latest fixtures. When this was the case, the average viewership for the MLS game that followed jumped by an additional 32 percent to an average of 186,000.

The MLS’s increases in viewership are further tempered when you consider them relatively as a fraction of the tens of millions of viewers that the industry-leading National Football League draws in.

Szymanski believes that at the current rate of increase the MLS will expect to take “at least half a century” to be a major player in the U.S. broadcast market.

It was also a high-profile year for soccer because of the summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Average U.S. viewership of the tournament rose 39 percent to 4.56 million from 3.28 million in the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

Information and measurement company Nielsen wrote that increased interest in the World Cup was having a benefit on the MLS, citing a 24 percent increase in league viewership to 174,000 in 2013 from 140,000 in 2009. “The uptick is perhaps a bellwether that “the beautiful game” has finally found a foothold among sports fans here in the States,” the company wrote on its newswire.

Soccer has “ incredible potential to grow significantly and generate income in the United States, I don’t doubt that at all and I think the MLS’s strategy reflects that capacity, Szymanski, the U of M professor said. “On the other hand, there is no significant league in the world that does not rely primarily on broadcast income to fund its activities.”

As part of the league’s development, two new franchises will also be introduced at the beginning of 2015, both with international stars helping to push their inaugural season. New York City Football Club, a joint venture by English side Manchester City and the New York Yankees, should feature both World Cup winning Spanish striker David Villa and decorated English midfielder Frank Lampard in its side. Orlando City Soccer Club will be headlined by Balon d’Or recipient Kaka.

In 2017 franchises in Los Angeles and Atlanta will be added. A franchise in Miami is awaiting a stadium agreement with the city, and the MLS is currently reviewing proposals from Las Vegas, Minnesota and Sacremento.

“I know that it’s a chip on our shoulder and an insecurity that we want to compare ourselves against these leagues,” Kyle Martino, NBC soccer analyst and former MLS player told Howler Magazine’s Dummy podcast. “But let’s just all please agree the we’re not as good as those leagues and it would be ridiculous to think that we would be based on salaries per team and how much money you’re spending on the field.”

The despite the jittery play, the cup final finished 1-1 in regular time. League MVP Robbie Keane then slotted in the winner in the 111th minute, celebrating the goal with his trademark cartwheel into a forward roll, followed by shooting mock pistols at the crowd.

As the Galaxy closed out the remaining nine minutes of the game, conversation in the bar on Irving Park Road switched from player histories to the current EPL standings, and then to how close the U.S. men’s national team came to defeating Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16.

“I think it’s good because it increases interest in the sport,” Jeffrey Nash, a patron at the Globe, said when asked about the increased coverage of foreign competitions. “It’s easy to catapult off the backs of the more well-known clubs. I think it’s a positive.”