MLS TV numbers don’t lie, but they can certainly be taken out of context

Posted on 02 November 2009 by Nathaniel E. Baker

Fox Soccer Channel today put out a press release on the growth of its ratings numbers over the past year, its first as a Nielsen-rated channel.

Among reports of increases in Serie A and English Premiership viewers, the statement also points out that “Major League Soccer audiences are up 89%, averaging 51,000 viewers last month vs. 27,000 over the same period in 2008.”

Taken alone, this number is indeed impressive, as USA Today’s Beau Dure pointed out. What might even be more significant is that MLS’ growth on FSC has outpaced that of Serie A and EPL on a year-to-year basis: 89% (MLS) versus 69% (EPL) and 48% (Serie A).

So far, so good. But the numbers also need to be put into context:
On FSC, Premiership viewers still outnumber MLS viewers by a wide margin (142,000 vs. 51,000).
While it is true that the average MLS match now gets more average viewers than its Serie A counterpart on FSC this is by a negligible amount (51,000 vs. 49,000) and does not take into account the other TV channels that show Serie A matches live (RAI international comes to mind).

But MLS is also shown on other channels. So too is the English Premiership. How did those do? According to EPL Talk, ESPN2 averaged 257,000 viewers for its first 13 games, or more than five times what MLS games average on FSC.

Obviously a direct comparison is not fair because ESPN2 is available in far more households than FSC is (98 million vs. 35 million, according to the USA Today piece). But what are ESPN2’s numbers for MLS? According to the Sports Business Daily (subscription required), these are up to 290,000 this season, which is more than what ESPN2 has been drawing for the EPL!

Does this mean MLS is now outperforming the EPL on U.S. television, as MLS Talk argues? Not quite.

The numbers again need to be put into context. ESPN2’s MLS broadcasts are largely during prime time. Their EPL games? Six of the first 13 were broadcast at the ungodly hour of Saturday 7:30 am East Coast time. There might be East Coast viewers willing to get up at that hour to watch, say Wolves v. Aston Villa, but how many people on the West Coast are going to pull off getting (or staying) up until 4:30am on a Saturday? Four of the 13 ESPN2 Premiership games were at 3pm on a (non-holiday) Monday, which is not exactly prime time either. If you take the three ESPN2 Premiership broadcasts that kicked off at 10am on a Saturday, the average viewership number is 298,000, which is slightly more than ESPN2’s MLS games (which kicked off at or near primetime hours).

Obviously this too is incomplete because there are other factors that can and do affect viewership. For example, what were ESPN2’s MLS broadcasts competing against? Baseball? Basketball? American Idol? Jon and Kate? (No, that’s on on Monday night. I know this because, uh, my girlfriend watches it religiously. Honest!) At least the AM hours do not have anywhere near the same type of competition. (Then again, Saturday afternoon competes directly with college football). And what about people who DVR the soccer matches? Are they accounted for? If not, the real EPL numbers are probably going to be higher.

With regards to the ESPN2 numbers we also need to remember that the sample size of 13 EPL games is significantly smaller than what FSC has to go by. Also, these are early days in the Premiership season. Come next spring, its viewership numbers will undoubtedly increase once the title chase goes down to the wire. Meanwhile, how much has David Beckham inflated MLS’ numbers on ESPN2? The USA Today piece says the network averages 409,000 viewers for Beckham’s games. What does this say about the games not featuring Beckham? How low must they be?

So really, comparing ESPN2’s viewership numbers for MLS and EPL is a tangled web. It probably makes a lot more sense to view FSC’s numbers as the more reliable (though still flawed) comparison tool. And these indicate MLS has a long way to go before it catches up to the EPL.

None of this should undermine MLS’ growth as reflected in the FSC report. So let’s also accept that MLS numbers are up across the board, which is undoubtedly a good thing for the sport’s growth in this country.

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