MLS championship game won't draw many viewers

Posted: November 19, 2010

In a year in which anemic is a fair word to describe Major League Soccer's television viewership, Sunday night's league championship, a pairing between two unknown teams, has to leave a sour taste for the networks committed to MLS in the Americas.

Even if they unequivocally deny it.

Sure, ticket sales might be at a premium, attendance is reportedly at a high, but according to an Oct. 28 article in Sports Business Daily, ratings on the ESPN family of networks are the lowest they have ever been.

Don't expect the matchup between Omar Cummings' Colorado Rapids and David Ferreira's FC Dallas to provide substance to anyone without a strong knowledge of the league.

SBD reports that ESPN2 averaged 249,000 viewers for 24 telecasts this season. FSC was only at 53,000 viewers over 31 matches, many with Saturday night prime-time spots. On both networks, the games that received the most viewership involved Los Angeles. A July 4 match between the Galaxy and Seattle reigned supreme on ESPN while (ironically) Rafael Marquez' debut with the Red Bulls against Los Angeles drew 144,000 viewers, tops on FSC. FSC has held steady with its average viewership numbers, but ESPN has seen a 12.3 percent drop since last year (284,000 viewers).

So it's probably safe to say a clash between say, Landon Donovan's and David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Thierry Henry's and Marquez' New York Red Bulls in the MLS Cup might have improved that - if only for a night.

Not to worry, however, says MLS commissioner Don Garber, who gave what could only be ascertained as an "everything's gonna be all right" response to lackluster viewership during his state of the league teleconference Monday.

"I don't sit there and worry if we don't get the right rating that we will lose a broadcast partner," said Garber. "Thankfully we have long-term relationships with our broadcast partners who have told you [journalists] many times they're in this for the long run. There isn't a commissioner anywhere that doesn't sort of wring their hands when you have historic, legendary, impactful matchups because that will drive ratings and helps breakthrough. However, we now have a lot of people buying season tickets in Denver, Dallas, Columbus and Salt Lake. And they're building fan bases and they're building relevance in their community. [Dallas and Colorado] deserve to be in the championship game. If they do things right based on our system, then they have the opportunity to do so."

In all respect to both clubs, they did get to the championship without a high-priced designated player leading the way, and in fact, it wasn't their max-money contract names who can lay serious claim to being catalysts.

Furthermore, in all fairness to MLS, the league is competing in an ultra-competitive market. Garber even said it himself in the sense that while popular European soccer leagues are competing against each other, MLS is in a dogfight with MLB, the NBA, NHL and most importantly the NFL. Really, how many people in the tri-state area really plan to tune in to the prime-time proceedings in Toronto when the reborn Michael Vick and the Eagles host divisional rivals in the New York Giants during the same time slot?

"It's not just as simple as marketing because if it was, that is an easy thing to fix," said Garber. "We collectively could spend more money marketing our game broadcast. It is a changing landscape here in the United States and in Canada. We have been working with our broadcast partners to ensure we have the right schedule, to ensure that we're producing the games of the highest quality, all in high-definition, to provide more exclusive nights or windows, and to work hard with each of them on promotion."

FSC, whose contract with MLS ends this season, has yet to agree to an extension with the league. Garber noted that the league is in talks with cable sports network Versus on a possible deal, but nothing with either network has been finalized.

Mind you, MLS is on path to field 20 teams - five in major markets - by 2013.

So while you can expect a sold-out crowd at BMO Field Sunday night (as MLS can lay claim to historically large crowds for its finale) don't expect anyone but true MLS aficionados to flock to television screens between 8-11 p.m.

Sadly enough, it is an unfortunate reality.

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