Earlier this week, NBC published its ratings for its debut season of broadcasting Major League Soccer over the air and on the NBC Sports Network.
I've spent some time digging into the numbers. Here's an analysis of what you can take from them. I also spoke with Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, and you can read his take below.
The shortest bullet point is this: MLS clearly benefitted when it moved from Fox Soccer Channel to the Peacock networks. NBCSN is in nearly 40 million more homes than FSC, and that wider distribution helped net MLS a large increase in viewership.
(You can thank Comcast in part for that gain. The Philadelphia-based cable giant owns NBCSN, and thus has an incentive to get it as wide distribution as possible on its cable systems.)
The average audience for NBC and NBCSN's games combined was 122 percent higher than the average audience for FSC's games in 2011. Counting just NBCSN's games, the average audience per game was 79 percent higher. And looking at just the playoffs, NBCSN's audience per game was 77 percent higher than FSC.
The most eye-catching statistic was aggregate viewership. Over the course of the season, NBC and NBCSN's broadcasts attracted a combined audience of over 13.2 million people. Fox Soccer Channel's 2011 aggregate viewership was 2.7 million people.
(For the record, the 13.2 million figure that NBC has circulated doesn't include the simulcasts of local feeds that NBCSN picked due to the NHL lockout. It also doesn't include the extra broadcast slot gained from the New York-DC snowout. Based on these reported Nielsen figures, I'd say the true number is likely a few hundred thousand people higher.)
That all sounds very good. And it is, really. But beneath the surface, there are numbers that don't look quite so attractive.
Across the regular season and playoffs combined, 30 of NBCSN's 54 broadcasts attracted under 100,000 viewers, and just three attracted over 300,000.
By contrast, of the 25 games aired on ESPN and ESPN2 thus far in 2012, 13 attracted over 300,000 viewers and none attracted under 100,000 viewers. Five ESPN and/or ESPN2 telecasts drew over 500,000 viewers, a level that NBCSN failed to reach.
Part of that difference can be attributed to ESPN's wider distribution. Both ESPN and ESPN2 are in nearly 99 million homes, while NBC Sports Network is in just over 77 million homes.
Another big factor is how many people watch ESPN at other times of the day besides MLS timeslots. So viewers see ads, or promos during English Premier League games and other broadcasts. They might e even see SportsCenter highlights (sometimes… well… you know how it is).
Nonetheless, the quality of NBC's broadcasts and the general improvement in audience give American soccer fans reason to be happy.
In my interview with Jon Miller, he told me that he's also pleased with where things stand.
"I think we've shown tremendous growth in our first year," Miller told me. "We did everything we told them we would do and then some. We over-delivered, honestly, what some of our projections were."
Miller acknowledged NBCSN's lack of distribution compared to ESPN, but he called broadcasting soccer "a long-term play for us."
"We're committed to the sport, clearly," he said. "As we continue to build it with great storytelling and production and promotion, that's what helps it."
It also helps when your cameras can bring David Beckham into American households. Whether you like him or not, Beckham is unquestionably MLS' biggest name. But he's leaving the league after Saturday's MLS Cup Final, and his star power will be hard to replace in the short term.
"I think it just makes everybody work that much harder," Miller said. "He's done a good job of bringing focus and attention to the league. I think it's up to us to build on the success we've had and continue to grow it."
One of the tools Miller gets to use in that building job is the English Premier League. Miller reiterated to me something that he's said many times before: NBC will promote MLS broadcasts during EPL games, with the intention of using the latter to grow the former.
"[MLS] will have the benefit of being promoted inside other quality soccer programming, which we've never had before," Miller said. "We had some U.S. national team games, but nothing like the breadth that we're going to have when the Premier League starts in August. MLS will benefit in those August-September-October windows from all of that promotion, as well as late spring promotion in March, April and May."
But there may be a caveat, and it may be a big one depending on your perspective.
When I spoke with Miller last month, I tried to get an answer from him on whether MLS would be treated as an equal to the EPL. I didn't really get one at the time, but I did this week.
"I don't see them being treated as equals, because we don't have all of MLS," Miller told me. "We have a portion of MLS but we don't have all of it. With the Premier League we have 100 percent of the product, and that's a significant difference in terms of our asset deployments and promotional bandwidth."
Lastly, I asked Miller whether NBC will change the quantity of games it broadcasts this year. He told me that the plan is to keep the same schedule: 41 regular season and three playoff games on NBCSN, and three regular season and two playoff games on NBC.
Here's a closer look at some numbers from this year's TV ratings that stand out to me.
- Even though the Union struggled on the field this season, they delivered high television audiences. Of the team's 13 games which aired on an ESPN or NBC property, eight drew over 100,000 viewers and five drew under 100,000 viewers.
(One of those four was a national simulcast of CSN's feed from the Union's trip to Kansas City on October 24. The NBCSN broadcast was blacked out in local markets, so the viewership figure that I've seen likely underestimates the total audience.)
The highest-rated Union game was ESPN's broadcast of the Union's trip to Red Bull Arena on July 21. It drew the network's second-largest audience of the year, attracting approximately 611,000 viewers.
That was an even bigger audience than what the All-Star game got (530,000). It may have been helped, though, by being immediately preceded by a live broadcast of the British Open golf tournament.
In addition, we now know for the first time that NBC's broadcast of the Union's season-ending game against the Red Bulls drew 436,000 viewers.
- New York and Los Angeles matter, whether you like it or not. Nine Red Bulls games and 11 Galaxy games drew audiences in excess of 200,000 viewers. That includes the teams' lone matchup against each other, on May 5, which drew approximately 494,000 viewers.
It also includes the Red Bulls' two appearance on NBC over the air. I mentioned the October 27 game against the Union above; there was also an October 6 game at Chicago, which drew 550,000 viewers.
L.A. has been an especially big draw in the playoffs. Four of the Galaxy's five playoff games have drawn audiences in excess of 300,000 viewers, led by the 540,000 viewers who watched L.A. host Seattle in the first leg of the Western Conference finals. The return leg in Seattle also drew a healthy 485,000 viewers.
The one Galaxy playoff game that didn't draw as well was the first-round game against Vancouver, which attracted 142,000 viewers for a 10:46 p.m. Eastern kickoff.
Still, that was NBCSN's second-highest playoff viewership, trailing only the D.C.-New York playoff game on Saturday, November 3 at RFK Stadium (158,000 viewers for a 7 p.m. start).
- Seattle's fan base extends beyond the big crowds at CenturyLink Field. Eight of the Sounders' 16 nationally-televised games this year drew audiences over 200,000 viewers, and four drew over 400,000. Just two drew under 100,000.
In addition, Seattle was highest-ranked metered market with a MLS team for NBCSN's MLS broadcasts. But there's a clue in that sentence: Seattle was not the highest-ranked city overall. That honor went to a city without a MLS team... but I'm not going to name it quite yet. Read on to find out more.
It should be noted that the Seattle's high viewership numbers were influenced by some extra factors. ESPN's Seattle at Portland broadcast on June 24 drew 888,000 viewers – ESPN's largest MLS viewership since 1998 – but it was immediately preceded by a Euro 2012 broadcast.
In addition, the second Seattle at Portland game (on September 15) drew 576,000 viewers, but got a boost from being on NBC over-the-air. That was the first MLS broadcast on network television since 2008.
(I find it very interesting that the cable broadcast drew a bigger audience than the over-the-air broadcast did. That speaks to the challenge NBC faces in promoting its properties that are not as well known as the NFL and Notre Dame.)
- In general, MLS benefitted greatly from being tied to strong lead-in programming. Along with ESPN's New York-Philadelphia and Portland-Seattle broadcasts, NBCSN's top four MLS broadcasts all immediately followed Olympics programming.
NBCSN's highest-rated MLS game of the year featured two struggling teams, FC Dallas and the Portland Timbers. But thanks to the Olympics, it drew 405,000 viewers. The network's second-highest rated broadcast also came during the Olympics: a Los Angeles-Dallas game on July 28 drew 405,000 viewers.
That ratings bump gives credence to Jon Miller's assertion that packaging MLS and EPL broadcasts will help MLS grow its ratings.
- ESPN's regular-season ratings increased over 2011. The average number of households per game increased by five percent and the average viewer impressions per game increased by 6.5 percent.
- Now to answer that trivia question from above. These were NBC's top metered 10 markets for MLS broadcasts in 2012:
1. San Diego
3. Portland, Ore.
4. Salt Lake City
5. Kansas City
6. Norfolk, Va.
9. New York
10. Fort Myers, Fla.
Among the noteworthy absences: Washington/Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. Philadelphia beat all of those and New York too, which is a testament to the foothold that the Union have gained in our region.
MLS has a long way to go in order to improve its TV ratings. Everyone knows that improvement has to happen in order for the league to grow in other ways.
But the move to NBC has clearly led to an increased audience for MLS broadcasts, which is good news. I'd also venture that a 6.5 percent increase on ESPN is reasonable progress. Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball, among other sports, have seen their national television ratings decrease in recent years.
So what should be the goal? That's a tough question to answer. I'm sure there are people who'd want specific numeric targets, whereas others would simply aim for consistent growth.
As I went through the numbers, though, one thing really stood out to me in terms of how much work MLS has to do.
I mentioned earlier that NBC's total audience for MLS this season was somewhere between 13 and 14 million viewers over 52 games, including the playoffs and the simulcasts of local feeds. ESPN's total audience so far has been approximately 8.3 million viewers over 25 games, including the playoffs.
So the total number of people who watched a MLS game on English-language national TV at some point during this year is a bit over 22 million.
For comparison's sake, NBC's Eagles-Giants game broadcast on September 3 drew 22.8 million viewers in just one night.
I realize that the comparison is patently unfair. Honestly, comparing anything to the NFL when it comes to TV ratings is unfair.
Still, I can't help noting that the combined audience for an entire season of MLS is about what you can get for one NFL game.
It was famously noted that the viewership of the U.S.-Ghana game was about the same as the average per-game viewership of the 2009 World Series between the Yankees and Phillies. Now you can claim that the most recent World Cup final drew more viewers than a prime time Eagles-Giants game.
Of course, it isn't fair to compare a World Cup to MLS either. The World Cup has all of the planet's best players; MLS does not, and makes no pretense about it.
The league's biggest strength is that no experience can match watching a game in person, and that has been borne out with another year of record-setting attendances.
But attendances don't immediately translate to TV ratings. That requires a different kind of growth. Even if the trend continues at its current pace, it will still take a while for the ratings to really leave an impression on advertisers and others with influence in the sports industry.
I spend a lot of time talking with people who are involved with televising MLS, as you all know. When the day comes that a MLS regular-season broadcast cracks 1 million viewers, people in important places will sit up and take notice.