2015 marked an important year for Major League Soccer. In its 20th season, the league finally sealed a television deal that highlighted at least two games each weekend on major networks. ESPN and Fox Sports 1 made MLS matches set fixtures on Sundays while Spanish language channels hosted at least one match on Friday night for “Viernes de Futbol”.
Having American soccer thrust into the national spotlight weekly would affect the league positively in two ways: it would increase television ratings which would bring more advertising dollars to the league and it would showcase the stadium atmosphere and bring more fans out to games, increasing gate sales – hypothetically. Television ratings are difficult to track down and often kept close to the chest, and are also reported inconsistently depending on the media company capturing the results. Attendance is released by the league and logged by Business of Soccer weekly.
Since the league set several attendance records in 2015, it can be assumed that the television deal positively impacted matchday revenue. However, this could also be attributed to the drastic increase in attendance from the two expansion teams, Orlando City SC and NYC FC, ranking second and third in 2015 average attendance respectively. A closer look at the numbers can help provide greater context to the impact of television on attendance. Below is a table that shows attendance data for nationally televised matches and non-nationally televised matches.
There are almost an equal number of matches that were nationally televised and not nationally televised. While it may appear at first glance that Nationally televised matches shepherded more fans into MLS stadiums, drawing in roughly 2,300 more people per game, there are other factors to be considered. The broadcasters, and the league, wanted to show more teams that had a full and loud atmosphere to draw in viewers – teams like Seattle Sounders and Orlando City SC for example. Both clubs were Nationally televised at home above the league average in 2015, and both had average stadium capacities, and resultant average attendance, well above the league average as well, which would skew the results in favor of Nationally televised matches. So despite showing a +12% difference in average match attendance, we cannot say that more fans will show up at the gates solely because it’s being shown on National TV.
There were several broadcasting companies that had a stake in hosting matches that would draw viewership. Below is the average attendance for the matches broadcast by each corporation.
Notice the big two networks (ESPN & FOX) hosted matches that drew large crowds while Spanish language broadcasters UDN and UniMas have a noticeable drop in average attendance. The teams that played the most on UDN and UniMas are the Chicago Fire, San Jose Earthquakes, FC Dallas, and Houston Dynamo. Each play at least seven matches on Univision networks, more than most other clubs by a considerable margin. It is understandable for FC Dallas and Houston to play the most to draw from Texas’ larger Spanish speaking population. However, Chicago and FC Dallas drew the second and third lowest attendances in 2015.
The final trend in attendance that is worth noting in this matter is the average attendance for each day of the week. Many pundits have lamented the mid-week MLS match crowd and the noticeable empty stadiums for these games. Below is a table showing the average attendance for each day of the week.
The large differences in the number of matches played on each day does not make comparison easy. The large difference between Wednesday and Friday average match attendance is glaring. Both days had a comparable number of matches, yet Friday games drew on average +3,400 more fans than its midweek counterpart, a +20% difference. Midweek matches, whether they were on national television or not, yielded much lower attendance numbers as the experts mentioned above would have anticipated.
This analysis shows that MLS fans are driven to the stadiums for reasons other than television. Day of the week, opponent, and club market almost certainly play much larger roles in driving people to the stadium gates. This is only the first year of the new 8-year MLS television deal. The league will hope to take the casual fan who watches from their living room out to the stadium in 2016 and beyond.
Next week Business of Soccer will profile how each MLS club fared in attendance when their matches were broadcast on national television.