Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

MLS national TV ratings rising so far in 2015

With ESPN coming to PPL Park for the first time this year on Sunday, it's a good time to check in with the network to see how things are going in the first season of Major League Soccer's new big-money TV deal. To do that, I spent a few minutes chatting with Amy Rosenfeld, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for soccer.

Rosenfeld's name is likely familiar to many of you by now. She oversaw the network's widely-acclaimed coverage of the 2010, 2011 and 2014 World Cups, and in conjunction with ABC was lead producer of the world feed for the 1999 Women's World Cup championship game. Her first MLS production assignment was in 1997, the league's second year of existence.

You may also have seen Rosenfeld on Twitter occasionally. She doesn't tweet much, but her list of followers is a who's who of notable American soccer personalities.

If you work in the television side of American soccer, you definitely know who she is. Many of the top production people at ESPN and elsewhere have worked with her, or at least cited her as an influence, over the years.

Chris Alexopoulous, who will be part of ESPN's production crew when the Union host New England Sunday evening (5 p.m., ESPN2), is among Rosenfeld's disciples. So is Shaw Brown, who oversees Fox Sports' MLS broadcasts. Even MLS vice president of broadcasting Larry Tiscornia used to be one of Rosenfeld's production assistants.

These days, Rosenfeld works more from her office in Bristol, Conn., than from production trucks. She does still travel for big events, as evidenced by the fact that when I talked to her, she was at an airport headed to Austin to help with production of the X Games.

Before getting into our conversation, let's take a look at some of the MLS TV numbers so far this season.

Each Tuesday, when the viewership totals for the past weekend's games are released, I inevitably get asked whether the numbers are good or bad. It's still early in the season, but let's look at where things stand so far.

ESPN2's 5 p.m. Sunday broadcasts are averaging 283,000 viewers per game - an 18 percent increase from the 240,000-per-game average in 2014 for games across all ESPN networks.

This year's figure is skewed by the 539,000-viewer audience for the season-opening game between Orlando City and New York City FC. It also includes a 152,000-viewer audience for the Union's game at Chicago on March 29. On both March 29 and 22, MLS went up against the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and last weekend's Portland-Orlando game was at the same hour as the conclusion of the Masters.

It's also worth noting that Fox Sports 1's average viewership for MLS so far this season is 219,000. That is a 54 percent increase on NBCSN's 2014 average of 142,000, which was the highest in its three years broadcasting MLS. The consistent 7 p.m. Sunday time slot is surely working in FS1's favor. NBCSN started games as late as 11:20 p.m. at times, and it did so not just on weekends.

Univision, meanwhile, has drawn average of 325,000 viewers for its exclusive Friday night games (prior to this weekend). Those contests are broadcast simultaneously on UniMás and Univision Deportes, with the Spanish commentary supplemented by a secondary English audio feed.

I don't have data on past years of Univision broadcasts, but it's notable enough that the Friday games are drawing larger audiences than the Sunday games on mainstream English networks.

It's also notable that according to Univision, the season-opening game between Chicago and Los Angeles was the most-watched MLS game among non-Hispanics on Spanish-language channels of all time.

(An aside on UniMás specifically: Because it is viewed through a combination of over-the-air affiliates and cable/satellite carriage, its viewership totals aren't reported as quickly as channels that are only on cable and satellite. That is a function of how Nielsen calculates viewing audiences for over-the-air networks. Over-the-air viewership totals usually take four days to calculate, compared to two for channels only on cable and satellite.)

No, MLS doesn't get the same viewership totals as the English Premier League or Liga MX. That is well-established by now, and it will be some time before it changes. Both of those competitions have built-in advantages: the EPL has little competition in its weekend morning time slots, and Liga MX has a mammoth fan base among Mexican immigrants.

If MLS can sustain its viewership averages so far through the end of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I would argue that will be a strong sign heading into the heart of the summer, when soccer traditionally gets the most attention.

At least that's the view from where I sit. I asked Rosenfeld for her perspective on what will constitute success by ESPN's standards.

"Success would be that the ratings go up," she answered.

Simple enough, and accurate enough. So much of what happens in the television industry, from advertising revenue to investment in production technology, is a function of ratings and trends in ratings. Everyone knows that for all of MLS' growth in attendance, sponsorship, social media buzz and so on, the national television ratings simply have not been good enough to merit even the kind of investment that ESPN, Fox and Univision have made.

But Rosenfeld isn't as worried as you might expect a television power-broker of her stature to be. She has been involved with American soccer for long enough to know where it came from. Forging an eight-year deal with MLS allows her and her employer to continue to take the long view.

"Everybody has clearly committed, based on this deal, that we are going to make soccer work on television in this country," Rosenfeld said. "The great thing about being in an eight-year deal is that we understand it's going to be slow going, and we've just got to continue to grind it out, and if Sundays aren't the answer, we'll look at another day."

Yes, you read that right: ESPN and Fox don't have to stick with the Sunday night schedule if it doesn't deliver.

"ESPN's position is that having a consistent window for appointment viewing will make it significantly easier than having to chase where the games are," Rosenfeld said. "I think we just need to figure out whether Sundays will be the answer. We're certainly going to give it a go."

She added that at the end of the year, all parties involved on both the league side and the TV side will study what happened this season and see if changes are needed."

"The ownership of MLS is on board" with consistent time slots, Rosenfeld said. "Look, everybody realizes this is going to be a work in progress. I'm sure the early NFL and AFL owners felt the same way, the early NBA and ABA owners felt the same way."

It's no secret that many MLS owners prefer to have as many Saturday night games as possible, because they draw the largest crowds and thus produce the most gate revenue. They may be on board with the TV networks now, but they weren't always.

What did it take to change their minds? We might never know all of the answers. But it's a fair bet that being offered a significant proportion of the $720 million that MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation will split over the next eight years might have had an effect.

So much of the money in soccer leagues around the world comes from television. Look at England, Germany, Spain, and even Mexico. At a certain point, MLS needs to spend big to become a big league, and at a certain point, the owners can only spend what they have. Television networks have the power to be the bankers, and Rosenfeld knows it.

"ESPN, Fox and Univision made a big commitment because they believe this is a valuable property," Rosenfeld said. "I think that was the statement that was made by all three networks... Ultimately, I think the owners and the league office recognize that now we're going to build this together."

I have brought this up before, but it bears repeating: the kind of relationship that ESPN, Fox and Univision have with each other is relatively unique in the media landscape. They don't just cross-promote each other's content, they legitimately want each other to succeed. You don't always see that with other American sports.

"We're not blowing smoke when we say we're in this together," Rosenfeld said. "I mean, yeah, we're in competition with Fox in a lot of areas, but in this area we're solid partners."

One of the reasons why is that the American soccer community is still not all that big. It certainly is growing, and it may seem big at times to people  who can't see beyond its core. Rosenfeld is not one of those people.

"I have great relationships with the Fox guys, because we've all been around a long time," she said. "It's the same cast of characters - maybe they switch networks, but we're all in this together."

In emphasizing patience and the long-term nature of the MLS deal, Rosenfeld noted that the English Premier League's rights cycle lasts only three years. That policy is not especially popular with American TV executives, who prefer the certainty that comes with long-term deals.

A short-term cycle benefits the Premier League as its popularity grows around the globe. You could make a legitimate case for MLS to operate the same way.

But I would counter that ESPN, Fox and Univision may have intentionally overpaid relative to MLS' market value for the purpose of sending a message within the U.S. and beyond about the league's future. It was not lost on industry observers that the combined annual rights fee from the three networks to MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation is greater than the annual rights fee NBC is paying the English Premier League.

In return for their investment, the networks got a level of certainty that rivals the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and top college conferences.

Put another way, the length of the deal is one of the reasons why there's as much money in it as there is. Those are my words, not Rosenfeld's. But as I listened to her, I got the impression that some people in Bristol have the same view.

"This was basically putting a line in the sand that said we're on board, we're in this with you, MLS, for a long time," Rosenfeld said. "Now that we've got the eight-year commitment, everybody can kind of exhale and know that we're in for the long haul... Now we can really have fun and be innovative."

And Rosenfeld can continue her work of developing more people in television production who understand soccer, cherish it, and know how to deliver it to the masses in the right way. In past years, Rosenfeld had a demo tape that she used to explain the offside rule to her colleagues. I didn't ask if she still has that tape, but it certainly isn't needed anymore.

"As much as the technology and the cameras have helped... the biggest thing is the human component - having guys who are invested, who know the game and love the game," she said. "It's no longer a bunch of football and hockey and basketball guys who do soccer."

I wrote at the start of this piece about the breadth of Rosenfeld's influence across the soccer television landscape. Toward of the end of my conversation with her, I asked what it means to her to see so many of her former pupils having such prominent success.

"It's very rewarding," she said.

Rosenfeld noted that her personal connection to soccer started when she was just two years old and her father took her into downtown Boston to watch World Cup games on closed-circuit television.

(I confess I did not ask which World Cup. That may have been because after saying it's rewarding to see her former colleagues having success, she added that "it reminds me that I'm really old.")

"I feel a responsibility to the sport," Rosenfeld said. "I always have, and I always felt a responsibility to the core fan to present it authentically, appropriately and with excellence. I'm proud that the folks that I worked with over the years have gone off and are producing their own games at an incredibly high level, and they're teaching the next generation."

That is quite a legacy to leave, even in a sport that still has so much growth yet to come.