With its unveiling last week of an impressive cast list of 22 -- flush with money, fame and head office experience both in sports and in Hollywood -- who will lead the newly created Los Angeles FC, Major League Soccer took its latest confident step forward. Buoyed by a ground-breaking television deal and coming off the back of a record season in attendances, the optimism as it enters what it has dubbed the next phase of MLS is obvious and understandable. But is the United States now truly ready to embrace MLS as a fifth major professional sports league?
While some experts argue it is already there, there is no doubt that, in terms of television ratings, it still lags far behind.
“It's currently a niche appeal sport but it's a strong and growing niche in an attractive demographic for many advertisers,” Darren Marshall, executive vice president, consulting and research, at global sports marketing and media agency rEvolution, said. “MLS has a very long way to go if you look at ratings, but it's also come a very long way from its nadir a decade ago.”
This summer soccer fever swept the country as the U.S. team advanced to the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The 64 tournament matches averaged 4.6 million viewers on ESPN, up 39 percent from the previous edition four years earlier. Last season saw NBC kick off a record deal for English Premier League coverage by doubling the viewing figures achieved the previous year. Yet, MLS has still to see the fruits of soccer’s boost in popularity.
In fact, in 2013, MLS was beaten in the hunt for viewers by the barely visible WNBA. The average viewership for MLS matches on ESPN and ESPN2 slumped by close to a third to 220,000, while NBCSN saw its numbers slide as well to 112,000. The same year the NHL saw an average of 351,000 viewers on NBCSN, combined with a 1.7 million average for its games on NBC. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball averaged 1.1 million viewers on ESPN in the 2014 regular season, and the NBA brought in 1.7 million on ESPN in 2013 as well as 3.6 million on ABC and 2 million on TNT. Football, though, continues to rule, with 21.2 million tuning in on average to the 2013 NFL regular season on Fox, as well as 18.7 million on CBS and 13.7 million on ESPN.
“Competition from more established sports is the key issue in growth,” Marshall added. “Americans only have so much time to follow sports and a new sport has to push aside an established sport to gain share of mind, which is really tough when people have largely grown up with allegiances to professional and college franchises in the established sports.”
The disappointing ratings beg the question of why ESPN and FOX recently signed an eight-year deal paying MLS a combined $75 million a year to show its games.
In part, the deal is simply following the trend for sports media deals. Last month, the NBA secured a 180 percent hike in its TV revenue by inking a nine-year, $24 billion contract with ESPN and Turner Sports. The NFL, NHL and MLB have also agreed to record sums for their rights in recent years. The appeal of sports programming lies in the high fees it generates from cable and satellite providers. ESPN takes in $6.04 per pay-TV subscriber as opposed to the industry average of 31 cents, according to media consultant SNL Kagan.
“Sports is a big draw because it's still watched live, so advertisements don't get skipped over,” Adam Gajo from SNL Kagan said.
MLS was particularly well-positioned to take advantage, argues Gajo. “MLS benefited from a couple of factors,” he explained. “The other major sports properties being tied up into long term agreements; the increased competition from more sports networks trying to get these rights and also that MLS is looked at as a growth opportunity, especially in the U.S.”
The product on the field is certainly improving. Stars of the U.S. team that so enthralled during the World Cup are returning to their homeland, enticed by the prospect of earning even bigger money than they would in Europe. Well-known international names are arriving in bigger numbers, too. Next season, New York City FC will feature Spanish World Cup winner David Villa and Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, while the most-expensive player in MLS history, former world player of the year Kaka, will turn out for Orlando SC. NYCFC and Orlando join the league in 2014, with Atlanta and LAFC to follow in 2017 as part of the plan to have 24 teams by 2020.
In terms of figures at the turnstiles, MLS is in fine health. The just finished 2014 regular season saw a record average attendance of 19,151, which actually puts it third among sports leagues in the United States, ahead of both the NHL and the NBA. That has helped 10 of the 19 teams generate a profit and with the average franchise worth $103 million, compared to the $5 million the 10 teams sold for at the league’s inception in 1996, according to a 2013 Forbes piece.
“Many individuals are looking at investing in Major League Soccer teams as a strategic long-term investment,” Scott Bukstein, assistant director of the DeVos Sports Business Management program at the University of Central Florida, said.
The future bodes well, too. According to a report from The Nielsen Company, 52 percent of MLS fans who expressed strong interest in attending live events and turning into games on TV were in the highly coveted 18-34 demographic -- higher than any professional sports league. Unsurprisingly given those figures, MLS fans are also the most likely users of smart phones among fans of America’s top sports leagues, as well as being notably social media savvy. On paper, that puts MLS well positioned to capitalize on the anticipated shift toward more Internet-focused media consumption.
“MLS understands that they need to build that brand affinity and brand loyalty,” Bukstein said. “People are still learning that soccer is one of the major sports in the U.S. and so Major League Soccer realizes that it’s a process to build that fan base. If you look at some of the strategies they’re using, I think that MLS is a leader when it comes to fan engagement and fan experience.”
If MLS is to embrace a status as a major sport, challenges also lie ahead. At the end of this year, the collective bargaining agreement expires. With the movement of players still restricted by the league’s single-entity status and 83 percent of players making less than the average wage of $207,831, skewed heavily by a small number of designated players not restricted by a salary cap, there are bound to be intense negotiations. Perhaps the league will even be forced to loosen the financial restrictions that it has always seen as key to preventing MLS going the same way as the United States’ last professional soccer league, the North American Soccer League, in the 1980s.
“If they have to increase their costs that could also be something that impacts the financial stability, because right now their player costs are relatively low compared to other sports,” Bukstein said.