SVG Biz Report: MLS, Part 1 — National Ratings Boosted by Scheduling Continuity

With its 20th season featuring new scheduling continuity and dedicated match windows, Major League Soccer and its national-broadcast partners are netting Nielsen increases during the early stages of the circuit’s milestone campaign.

As part of MLS’s new eight-year rights agreements valued at $90 million annually — more than three times the $27 million payout under the old contracts — the bulk of its 34-week schedule is constructed around national contests airing on Univision Communications’ services on Friday nights, regional sports networks carrying matches on Saturdays, and ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1 combining for de facto doubleheaders on Sundays.

All MLS games are now televised nationally or locally, the latter on RSNs and some broadcast affiliates.

Although MLS matches don’t produce numbers at the level of Mexico’s LigaMX or the UK’s Barclays Premier League, the revamped schedule is yielding early dividends, with the national networks ringing up double-digit audience and key-demo gains. Last season, MLS matches played all seven days of the week and at 18 start times.

Through May 3, FS1 had posted a 57% rise in viewership from NBCSN’s 2014 package, and ESPN2 was 13% ahead of its match average across all networks a year ago. For its part, MLS’s simulcasts on broadcaster UniMás  and dedicated sports cable service Univision Deportes Network (UDN) grew 30% over 2014.

“We’re encouraged by the viewership,” says MLS SVP, Media, Seth Bacon. “We’re excited working with our great partners at Fox, ESPN, and Univision. The [national-TV] schedule is making a difference.”

Bacon, a former NASCAR executive, says the Saturday schedule is also helping the clubs locally, with most matches kicking off at 7:30 or 8 p.m. “Fans know when the home games are scheduled, and then they can be in a seat at the stadium or watching at home.”

They are also gathering on Sundays for the “doubleheaders” on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. and on FS1 at 7 p.m.

“It’s an ease of use for viewers who know when and where the games are going to air,” says David Nathanson, head of business operations at Fox Sports.

With a peak of 309,000 for Seattle-Portland, OR, on April 26, FS1 averaged 222,000 viewers through May 3, up from a 141,000 average in the 2014 season on NBCSN, the highest mark during that network’s three-year run with the domestic league.

The MLS momentum is fashioning a solid lead-in for FS1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan, the social-media sensation.

Nathanson says MLS provides a “highly educated, high-income household audience for Katie. FS1 is really putting a lot of focus and resources behind Garbage Time on TV and on multiple platforms and seeing growth.”

ESPN2, which started the season with 539,000 viewers for the league’s initial battle of 2015 expansion teams Orlando City SC and New York City FC, averaged 272,000 viewers through May 3. That’s up 13% from 240,000 throughout the 2014 season, across ESPN2 and ESPN. The average also represented a 65% jump from 165,000 viewers at the corresponding stage of the 2013 season (ESPN networks hadn’t aired any MLS matches through this point of the 2014 campaign.)

Nathanson says the Sunday doubleheader gambit has been mutually beneficial: “It’s ultimately raising all ships, reflected by the performances on ESPN2 and FS1.

He notes that there has been strong audience movement on Sundays, depending on the quality of matches, among those “watching first on ESPN2 and then clicking to FS1. They are making a night of soccer. That’s a big deal for the sport and MLS going forward. We’re seeing similar numbers among men 18-34 and 18-49.”

That transference has been duly noted by the league, which has created marketing materials deployed by its telecast partners to trumpet “MLS Soccer Sundays.” Akin to the schedule announcements that NBA partners Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC run, MLS promos note the upcoming matches scheduled for the networks.

“A number of viewers [are] jumping from ESPN2 to FS1,” says Bacon. “Viewers are getting significant sampling not only of their favorite teams but from other clubs around MLS. The parity of our league and the quality of schedule are heightening that exposure.”

Watch for SVG Biz Report: MLS, Part 2 on Friday May 15. 

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