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ESPN takes long-term view amid fall in MLS Cup final TV viewership

The television viewership figures for this year's MLS Cup final stunk. There, I said it. And it wasn't that difficult.

The television viewership figures for this year's MLS Cup final stunk.

There, I said it. And it wasn't that difficult.

You know why it wasn't difficult? Because we all knew ahead of time that barring some kind of miracle, the numbers were going to stink.

Well, there was no miracle. Darlington Nagbe is good, but he isn't that good.

ESPN drew 668,000 viewers for Portland's 2-1 win over Columbus. That was down 31 percent from last year's audience for Los Angeles vs. New England, which was Landon Donovan's final game of his career. UniMás drew 300,000, down 51 percent from last year. Univision Deportes' simulcast drew 206,000, down 16 percent from last year.

That adds up to a combined viewership of of 1,174,000 - down 38 percent from last year's total of 1,887,000.

The only even slight glimmer of good news was the fact that ESPN's online viewership of 32,000 smashed the network's record streaming audience for a Major League Soccer game.

(I don't have Univision's online audience figure. I asked for it and haven't heard back yet.)

You could also say nice things about the local ratings in the participating markets: a 5.1 in Columbus and a 7.4 in Portland. But those figures aren't nearly enough to make any kind of an impact nationally.

Portland is the nation's 24th-biggest TV market. Columbus is No. 31. Only Kansas City (33) and Salt Lake City (34) rank below. The other 13 U.S. MLS markets all rank above Portland, with Orlando the lowest of those at No. 19.

(Not coincidentally, the 2013 final between Sporting and RSL drew an even smaller audience on ESPN than this year's game did: 505,000 viewers.)

The throngs who pounce on every crumb of MLS TV data in search of justification for their livelihoods will have to wait for another year to find out what kind of audience would tune in for a matchup between Seattle and New York, or one between Los Angeles and Chicago or Philadelphia.

(Okay, that latter scenario probably won't happen in 2016. But you get my point.)

Whether or not the consternation over this year's TV numbers was worth the effort, there certainly was a lot of it. And ESPN certainly noticed.

But the network isn't too worried about what is, even now, a single data point at the end of the first year of the eight-year deal that ESPN, Fox and Univision have with MLS.

That was the clear message I got in an exclusive interview with ESPN senior vice president Scott Guglielmino, who oversees all of ESPN's soccer operations in the United States. We talked a few days ago, after all of the official viewership data had been published.

Guglielmino is a firm believer in keeping a long-term perspective, and a firm believer in what MLS can do for itself, ESPN and soccer in America. He also knows firsthand just how difficult it is for MLS to get the exposure it wants and needs in the greater American sports landscape. And he knows that he has a big role to play in helping to solve the puzzle.

Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

The first question that has to be asked is: from a general perspective, what's your reaction to the number of people that watched the MLS Cup final?

Well, hey, we in the sports media business are always looking for growth year over year. So that's a given. The good news is that we're up over 2013, we're a little bit under 2014, and that's something that we're obviously focused on making sure that we improve next year.

On the bright side, the WatchESPN numbers were up significantly, talking about 32,000 average minute impressions added to the television number. That's up 46 percent versus last year. The good news is that it's a very desirable audience, and from a WatchESPN perspective it certainly grew from 2014.

I think in the bigger picture, we're very focused on working with the league to try and navigate a really busy schedule. MLS has a long season, like many other sports, and that season winds up - or winds down, however you want to put it - at a very busy time of year.

So we're working with the league to try to figure out what the best options are from a schedule perspective, both from the TV perspective as well as the teams' gate and technical considerations. I think that's my take on it.

One of the things I have told my readers who've complained about the low viewership figures is that Major League Soccer seems just as prone as every other American sports league - save for the National Football League - to ending up with smaller audiences for games involving teams from smaller television markets. Does it seem the same way to you?

The reality of it is, start from the center of the bulls-eye. If a team is located in a big market, there are more available fans, and if the team has done well in terms of cultivating that fan base, by sheer numbers those fans should be tuning in and making an impact on a national number.

I will say that it's also one of those interesting - conundrum is the wrong word, but you're looking for your local markets to help drive your national number, while at the same time you don't want to get too local. You had L.A. in there in 2012 [against Houston] and '14 [against New England], and in '13 you had Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, and then [this year] you had Columbus and Portland. So you had some smaller markets in those odd years. That certainly moves the national number, no question.

On the flip side of that is - and it's certainly not lost on us and not lost the other partners - the supporter/fan base and culture is something that is really interesting in pretty unique. The more that these clubs generate that and grow that from the center of the bulls-eye out, we certainly think that from a relevance perspective, that means more people are walking around thinking about, or wearing a scarf or a jersey of, a certain team and supporting it. You extrapolate that, and that's going to lead toward more audience. So those are all indicators.

From what you just said, it sounds like having the championship game at the highest remaining seed instead of at a neutral site is a good thing for television. The neutral site game brings logistical advantages, but having at the higher seed brings a spectacle advantage?

I like the high seed hosting. I think it rewards the team, it rewards the fan base, it rewards the ownership. It does have some logistical challenges, but when you look at the scene in Columbus - when you look at the scene in Portland, a fantastic backdrop as well - I think that right now, at this stage for MLS, it's definitely the right way to go.

And again, it allows that high seed that got all the way through to really host it and shine, and I think that's important right now.

One of the questions I've been asked by a number of people is whether MLS should try to play at least the title game, if not more playoff games overall, on weekday nights because there is some evidence that weeknight MLS games draw bigger television audiences. What does your experience tell you about that?

And within your answer, how much of a logistical challenge would it be in terms of having to plan kickoff times for games across various time zones? And you don't just have to think about, for example, the east coast audience for a game in California. There's a truly global audience now across the Americas, Europe, Africa and so on.

You hit the nail on the head. It's a balancing act. It's a fairly complex discussion that has to take into consideration the U.S. audience - and even when you look at the U.S. audience, from one coast to another you're talking three time zones. You have to take into consideration technically what the cadence of the games are, so you have a certain number of days off. You have to take into consideration gate [revenue], and even we as television want the stadiums full and with a raucous environment. You also have international [audiences] to consider, and you have the networks' schedules to consider.

So it's a very, very complex set of hurdles and opportunities. I will tell you that we've been very transparent with the league and the other partners in a broad discussion, and a specific discussion about exactly that. When can we optimize, how can we optimize, the schedule for the league knowing that when the league begins in the spring, and then when the playoffs come and the cup [final] comes, that we're in busy times of the year, how can we optimize that schedule?

There's absolutely been conversation about and discussion about [whether] it makes more sense to go midweek with portions of the playoffs, does it make more sense to put [the final] on the weekend or midweek. So there's absolutely that back-and-forth. And I applaud the league for being very open and transparent to not only our concerns and our issues, but also our input and our research, what we know and what we don't know, to try and help us all be smarter about how to optimize the schedule.

Among the fans' complaints is the one about playing the final on a Sunday and thus going up against the NFL, instead of playing on a Saturday and going up against college football.

The common response is that on Saturday, all of the major over-the-air and cable sports channels are filled with college football from noon to midnight, so there's no room for soccer, and the game would end up on a lesser outlet such as Fox Sports 2 or ESPNews. And there are a lot of people out there who watch college football too, even if the big markets for college football aren't the same as the big markets for the NFL and soccer.

Is it feasible to put the MLS Cup final on a Saturday during the college football season without burying it on a smaller channel?

Put the network that the game airs on specifically aside for a moment. In 2012 and '13, the MLS Cup was on a Saturday, and it was on at either 4:00 or 4:30 [p.m. Eastern time]. In 2012, it was at 4:30 and it was the L.A. Galaxy hosting Houston. That was almost 600,000 impressions [in English]. The next year it was Saturday at 4:00, half an hour earlier, and it was 374,000 impressions. Last year it was on a Sunday, L.A.-New England, that was 535,000 impressions. And then this past weekend, Sunday at 4:00, Columbus at Portland.

So you literally are split down the middle. From my perspective, it's a little bit less about us moving a college football game and more about the competitive landscape. And I think to your point, on that Saturday, even if it's on ESPN or if it's on a big network, you're talking about a lot of college football in whatever window you put the MLS Cup in.

Then, if you put it on Sunday, you know how the NFL works. You've got an early window with multiple games, you've got a late window with one or two games, and then you've got prime time. So it's tough. There's a lot of great content out there on the weekends in the fall.

If the game was played on a Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. Eastern or so - which happened for a few years in the late 2000's and early 2010's, and there wasn't much of a difference in viewership - in terms of logistical considerations, the time slot is probably there, but I wonder if at some point weather comes into the equation.

An afternoon game in December, especially on the east coast and in the midwest [and in Canada too, if need be], would have warmer temperatures, and thus potentially be better for fans, and perhaps make for a better soccer game too. I think of 2010 in particular, when Toronto hosted the final and it was frigid and the game was dull.

I can honestly tell you that is not a conversation I have been a part of, in terms of deciding afternoon versus evening in the fall for the Cup, and how that manifests itself on the field.

I know that in the summertime, there are certain markets where we've got to be careful in terms of time of day because of heat, and frankly that's just common sense. The players are going to fare better if they're not playing in extreme heat. That's the only kind of conversation I've ever been involved with directly where we've been talking about weather and how that impacts time of day.

Looking at the year as a whole, I've heard complaints from people in the industry about going up against the NFL on Sunday. I'm sure you've seen some of the remarks that have been published in recent days, including ESPN lead MLS play-by-play announcer Adrian Healey expressing some frustration to me. And as Adrian told me, it's not just the NFL - there are other big sporting events on Sundays throughout the year.

You do have a long-term deal here, and some ability to have your say to MLS. As you look at Sundays overall this year, how do you think things have gone? How much reflection will there be going forward about whether to stick with the way things were done this year?

First of all, there's constant reflection. We spend a ton of time with the league and with our research folks and others looking at options. I will tell you that one of the big mandates for all of us in terms of the television partners and the league was to try to create some consistency and some appointment viewing.

I think that due to the length of the season and then the confluence of various sports seasons throughout the year, it led us to Sundays, where we could reach those objectives. And specifically, the consistency piece. I don't disagree that Sunday is a busy day. But as we just talked about, in the fall, Saturday is a busy day, and last time I checked, you've got football on Thursday night's and you've got football on Sunday nights and Monday nights.

So again, it's a busy environment out there. And I'm not sure there's an easy fix, because I'm pretty sure we would have found it already if there was. Going up against the NFL is not something that's lost on us, but again, it's something where we're taking a long-term view.

We think that the WatchESPN numbers - and specifically the audience, as it tends to be younger and a bit more diverse - we're aiming at making sure that particular group, that core group of young reviewers who are avid soccer fans and avid MLS fans, that we're trying to carve out a home for them.

What you said begs a somewhat inevitable question about whether there may be, at some point, a move to invert the MLS season and have it go from fall to spring. A lot of people call for it - and that's not to say it's right or wrong, it's just a very big weapon to deploy. Obviously, MLS headquarters has said no, but is it something that you all on the television side have considered.

We've considered most things. I think first and foremost, that is a decision that is up to the league. It's something that we have talked about from time to time.

I think the reality of it is, even if you inverted it, with the length of the season, you're still going to have some significant overlap into busy times of the year. I just think that to a large degree, unless you're going to play these games at an off hour - where at the same time, gate will be an issue and so will available audience - it's just going to be something that we are going to have to cope with.

We're going to have to try to optimize the audience as we can, but I'd just say that ultimately, that's the league's decision. When we did the deal, we did the deal with the understanding would be what it is, and that we would work together as closely as possible to try to optimize that schedule within those parameters.

Well, there is the running joke that the audience for English games at 7:45 and 10:00 a.m. Eastern time on Saturdays is so big that MLS should try kicking off games in the morning. On a serious note: Is there something to be said for, instead of making a big change, sticking with one plan for four to five to eight to 10 years, so that the viewer develops a habit of consistency? That is not something MLS has always done particularly well in its history.

I think a couple of things. It's always interesting, the notion of consistency against the stark relief of sort of where we are as a media nation. The ability, through connected devices, for fans to access content in "off hours" - meaning not in prime time and not in weekend afternoons - that continues to increase.

And we have, as you're aware, examples in the European championships, the World Cup, Wimbledon, the French Open, the UEFA Champions League. Those get pretty decent numbers, and those are times of day where historically, those haven't been TV-friendly, let's say, windows of time. Technology has basically created new windows of time, new markets of time, and I think it's our job to figure out [how to use them], between consistency, and also availability from a technical perspective.

I would also say we've done a few of what we're calling, with the league and our other partners, "tent pole" events. Decision Day [the final day of the regular season]. We're talking about whether or not we can own a couple of other days on the calendar together, and make a lot of noise, and grow our reach.

I think those are all tactics in a broader strategy to get MLS in front of more eyeballs. Because generally speaking, you look at the attendance, you look at the supporter culture, there's absolutely something there, and there's a growing fan base.

On the media side, I think it's up to us to not only figure out the best opportunities to get people in front of live games, but then it's also the game around the game. Social media, short form, all of those other bits and pieces, to satiate that appetite for soccer.

You mentioned the digital rights side of things, and the importance of online streaming. As part of MLS' new TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision, ESPN acquired online streaming rights in the United States for all MLS games that are not nationally televised. 

The original plan was to have those streams be carried on, free of charge to subscribers, with potentially a paid subscription option available for fans who don't have ESPN3 access. But for a variety of logistical reasons, that didn't happen this year, and ESPN decided to keep the existing MLS Live platform going for another season.

Have there been any discussions about getting the games on to ESPN3 in 2016?

Going into the year that just finished up, the decision was made to continue MLS Live and Direct Kick [the TV distribution platform for out-of-market games], largely because those are terrific services. They're growing, they do a fantastic job of servicing that fan.

We decided with the league that we were going to continue operation of those platforms. We felt like that was the best course of action at that time for the fan. And again, those are going business that are growing. We do have conversations at the end of each season, which we're beginning to have now, about what that looks like in the future.

We do control those rights, and again, our interest is in making sure that the fan experience is not disrupted, and that whatever we do, we improve on that from one year to the next.

The other piece to it is that we also are very interested in making sure that the national telecasts that we have create a virtuous circle between the national telecasts, the short form social content that we do, and then the direct-to-consumer pieces. We view those holistically as serving the MLS fan and the soccer fan. When we think about distribution of MLS, we think about it in those three buckets.

This next question plays a little bit off our previous discussion of market size. In recent weeks, the Philadelphia Union have hired Earnie Stewart to be their sporting director, and the Chicago Fire have hired Nelson Rodriguez as general manager and Veljko Paunovic as head coach. There is real hope across MLS for big improvement by two clubs that for a while now have been among the Eastern Conference's worst.

Both of those teams are in huge markets that deliver big numbers of total viewers and big local shares for their sports teams. Is there anything you can say about those particular teams and markets, and what they can bring?

At the end of the day, what's been interesting for us to watch is how the ownership in MLS as a league has evolved, [and] how diverse the ownership has become in terms of what angle they are coming from.

We are obviously very supportive of the competitive piece between clubs; we're also very supportive of the steps that the ownerships and the league have taken to expand things like the Designated Player. But also, we look at other pieces of the puzzle. Development, and the development academies that have sprung up over the different clubs, and even private ones, and how that's going to feed the system. There's attention to the middle of the roster as well.

We view all of that as a positive. Obviously, from a soccer stadium perspective, there's been a lot in the papers about what's coming. All of those things are exciting, and those are all great indicators of progress and momentum. We love it, we love to see it, and for us it's all part of the movement forward to keep developing the league and growing the fan base.

Here's a question which plays off that exact topic. We have seen this year, and perhaps we will see again next year as well, an influx of marquee players to MLS who are attractions in the Spanish-speaking community. David Villa in New York, Giovani dos Santos in Los Angeles, Johan Venegas in Montréal, Kaká in Orlando. The list goes on, and there are many reports out there about Carlos Vela coming next year, and Javier Hernández ultimately being the big prize.

What is the effect of that on your English-language network? I would imagine it is positive, because there is increasing evidence of Spanish-speaking immigrants and bilingual Americans watching sports programming on English channels.

As one example, a recent UEFA Champions League game day, Fox put Bayer Leverkusen vs. Barcelona - featuring Hernández against Lionel Messi and Neymar - on Fox Sports 1 instead of hugely popular English clubs Arsenal and Chelsea. It's clear that Fox chose a matchup it believed would draw a big audience. 

I think a couple of things. The reality is that we are not an English network. We have ESPN Deportes, and ESPN Deportes handles all the MLS games that we do, in Spanish. We look at the marketplace as a whole, and for us, it's about relevance to a diverse audience. When we look at our audience in the U.S., it's a diverse audience and it's getting more and more diverse every year.

For us, the reality of it is that dos Santos in L.A., his presence on that roster has boosted not only the general market English-language numbers, but the Spanish-language numbers. So again, our modus operandi is to serve sports fans, and we do that across the board.

And when we look at selecting teams, or we look at player acquisitions and teams have made and how that impacts our interest, the reality of it is that certainly, the Hispanic fan tends to absolutely follow certain marquee Hispanic players. Those acquisitions are definitely going to have an impact not only on the audience, but on the networks that choose those matches.

We look at it holistically, again, trying to serve the fan overall. And we think that's an opportunity. We don't think that's a roadblock. We think that's an absolute opportunity with MLS and with soccer.

It reminds me of when ESPN did a deal with the Mexican national team for the U.S. English-language rights to El Tri's home games for a few years, including 2014 World Cup qualifiers. There's an audience out there.

And I guess that's more what I meant by the previous question. Yes, the Spanish-speaking audience is going to watch ESPN Deportes, Fox Deportes and so on if they have access to those channels. But they are also watching ESPN and Fox networks in English, and their kids who may be even more bilingual are watching the English-language channels even more.

Oh, no question. That's acculturation, and that's absolutely happening. We feel like the best way to handle our mantra - which is to serve sports fans any time and anywhere - we believe it's important to have [content] across languages, so that we can serve sports fans if they are bilingual.

If they want to watch in English, great. We've got it covered. If they want to watch in Spanish, we've got it covered. If you're Spanish-dominant, we've got it covered. If you're English-only, we've got you covered. Absolutely, the acculturation piece is a factor. And again, for us, it's an opportunity.