Major League Soccer’s (MLS) twentieth season will be nothing short of special. Twenty teams including two expansion clubs, quality signings including Kaka and David Villa, and the first year of the “MLS Next” rebrand promise to make it a very exciting season. One of the most important changes for 2015 is the first year in a new eight year television deal.
The new television deal has ESPN, FoxSports, and Spanish language broadcast company Univision teaming up to broadcast the 2015 MLS season. The networks have worked with the league to optimize viewership. For the first time in league history, there will be consistency in when matches will be played and broadcast on national television. ESPN and FoxSports will broadcast two games back to back on Sunday afternoon, mostly at 5pm and 7pm. Univision will feature a Friday night broadcast with most games scheduled on UniMas. This new schedule will give consistency to nationally broadcasted soccer, and has great potential to increase viewership. In past deals, any matches broadcast nationally have been sporadic and infrequent, often making it difficult for fans to find the televised games and follow the league.
ESPN, FoxSports, and Univision have released 95 matches that will be broadcast nationally, with four more on the final match day of the season. MLS has arranged for all Eastern Conference matches to be played concurrently followed by all Western Conference matches played concurrently. This ‘Decision Day’ will broadcast the four most impactful matches in an effort to increase ratings, and therefore will be announced towards the end of the season.
With the release of the new schedule, it is clear that the broadcasters have had some influence on the MLS schedule. Since the networks have established broadcast times, they want to optimize their ratings by broadcasting the highest profile matches. The below figure shows the number of times each team appears on a national broadcast.
Notice that the teams that will appear twelve or more times on national television are considered large market teams in MLS. Both New York teams combine for 29 television appearances, appropriate for being the largest market. Los Angeles, Orlando City, and Seattle have recognizable players on the field which is attractive for companies to broadcast. It might be surprising to see Chicago and San Jose towards the top of this list but Chicago and San Jose are the third and fourth largest television markets respectively. It should be noted that Canadian clubs have a partnership with TSN in Canada, and therefore appear almost exclusively on Canadian television.
Also note the clubs with the highest number of appearances on Spanish language television: Houston, FC Dallas, Chicago, and San Jose each appear seven or more times on Univision, significantly more than most other MLS clubs. This shows an emphasis to tap into the Spanish-speaking population in these markets, especially in Texas.
The networks considered more than just star power when selecting which teams to broadcast. To justify their television dollars, it would make sense to broadcast high profile matches or matches with a great atmosphere. The below table shows the number of home matches each club will play on national television as well as attendance statistics from the 2014 season.
There is some correlation between 2014 attendance numbers and the number of home matches each team will play on national television. These networks are clearly taking a chance on the excitement that the two expansion clubs will bring. With no indication of what their atmosphere will be, other than what we’ve seen off the pitch thus far leading up to their inaugural season, Orlando City SC and NYCFC will broadcast fifteen of their home matches (combined). Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and San Jose have some of the league’s best matchday atmospheres to offer, so it makes sense for the league and for the networks to showcase these teams more often.
If the league wants to make strides in generating revenue like other professional sports leagues, it needs to capture a larger television audience to create an even more lucrative television deal in 2023. The networks are doing their homework to appeal to soccer fans and garner a larger audience and are highlighting the clubs with the most appealing talent on the field, the stadiums with the most appealing atmosphere, and the cities with the most appealing television markets.
The partnership between the networks and MLS show promise for future growth, and the conditions are ideal for MLS clubs to capitalize on this television exposure. Now it is time for the league to deliver a quality product and convert the apathetic fan.