Major League Soccer increased viewership this season. Now it has to convince networks it's worth $300 million per year (2024)

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos (11) passes the ball forward against Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara (21) during the MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC on December 11, 2021 at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.

Brian Murphy | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

While other U.S. sports leagues battle another Covid outbreak, Major League Soccer ended its 2021 season with some good news as it attempts to convince TV networks they should pay $300 million a year to carry its games.

ESPN said this week the 2021 MLS Cup on ABC averaged 1.14 million viewers, peaking at 1.6 million viewers, delivering the fifth-most watched audience for an MLS Cup on a Disney-owned network since 1999. New York City FC beat the Portland Timbers in a penalty kick shootout (4-2) to win their first championship.

That's up from the average 1.07 million viewers who watched the 2020 game on Fox Sports last year, and up 38% from an average of 825,000 viewers for the 2019 game.

The viewership report arrives at a good time for MLS as the league seeks a significant increase from networks. Industry sources suggest MLS is seeking $300 million per season – up from the roughly $90 million it brings in from ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision combined.

But, the MLS rights package could be devalued due to key aspects of its offerings.

"They will do well," said Lee Berke of LHB Sports, a sports media consultancy firm. "But there's things that are working for them and things that will perhaps reduce their increase."

The New York City FC celebrate winning the 2021 MLS Cup during the MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC on December 11, 2021 at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.

Brian Murphy | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

MLS leveraging entire fleet

Let's stay on the viewership front – as it's the most critical metric in rights deals. MLS had some exciting moments for its 2021 season, which the league can use to highlight increased fan interest.

Fox Sports aired the Thanksgiving Day playoff game between the Timbers and Colorado Rapids, which attracted an average of 1.8 million viewers on Fox platforms. That became the most-watched MLS game on the network and the highest MLS audience since April 2004.

That year, soccer star Freddy Adu, then age 14, made his MLS debut with D.C. United at RFK Stadium against the San Jose Earthquakes. The contest drew an average of 1.97 million viewers.

For the 2021 regular season, MLS said it averaged 276,000 viewers for 31 regular-season games across ESPN channels, including ABC. That's up from the average 233,000 viewers who consumed 39 MLS games in 2020 on ESPN platforms.

And on Fox channels, MLS said viewership increased 4% compared to the 2020 season.

"Ratings have been OK in terms of linear, but they still struggle compared to ratings for Liga MX or Premier League," Berke said, referring to international leagues.

MLS said it averaged 284,00 viewers per game on the Spanish-language network Univision. But soccer viewers have shown more interest in consuming international leagues over MLS.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, said it averaged 414,000 viewers for its English Premier League soccer package for the 2020-21 season. And so far in EPL's current season, NBC Sports said games averaged 609,000 viewers across its TV channels.

The network reportedly agreed to pay $2.7 billion to retain Premier League U.S. rights. That figure is up from the $1 billion EPL received from the network in the previous agreement.

Berke said networks will pay premium rights fees for soccer since the sport's fan base tend to be "younger and more tech-savvy."

"That's why you're seeing Paramount+ aggressively bidding for a variety of international soccer packages," he said, referring to Viacom's streaming service. "That's why you saw the huge bump that NBC paid to retain the Premier League. And that will work well for MLS."

MLS commissioner Don Garber said all of MLS's content will be leveraged, including games in local markets and the league's data rights, for the 2023 media package.

"Many years ago we went to our clubs and said, all of your local deals need to expire by the end of the [2022] season," Garber told reporters on Dec. 7.

"All of your streaming deals need to expire," Garber added. "All of your data deals, all of your sports betting deals, everything that has a touch point with a consumer is all now in a package that we're able to engage with traditional media companies that are transforming themselves digitally, to new media companies."

Does MLS have bargaining power?

The new MLS agreement may differ from its current rights package, which former ESPN boss John Skipper once labeled a "futures deal" and like "buying pork bellies."

In the current deal, ESPN has the rights to most MLS games and rotates All-Star games and MLS Cup events with Fox. The companies also share an inventory of U.S. men's national games.

The national team media rights were negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm for MLS. But the U.S. Soccer Federation, which operates the rights, ended its partnership with SUM last May.That means MLS can't add those rights to its new package.

It's unclear how that will impact MLS's position at the negotiation table. Media pundits estimate MLS could draw closer to $200 million for rights since it lost the U.S. national rights.

"They have to balance out the range of factors that are enhancing the value of soccer versus the fact the SUM involvement with the men's and women's team isn't there anymore," Berke said.

"And the NFL took a lot of money off the table for everybody," added Berke, referencing pro football's more than $100 billion deal last March.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, left, and Charlotte MLS owner David Tepper announce that Major League Soccer will be coming to Charlotte in 2021 at an event in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

Nell Redmond | AP

MLS adding more content

MLS could make up for losing the national team rights with its new Leagues Cup format.

The new month-long championship tournament starts in 2023 and will feature all of the MLS teams playing against clubs from Mexico's Liga MX league. MLS can capitalize on Liga MX's popularity in the U.S., since Liga MX can attract more than 3 million viewers for games on Univision.

MLS will add TV markets in Charlotte in 2022, St. Louis in 2023 and is eyeing a 30th MLS franchise in the Las Vegas market. It will also leverage its rights to feature additional teams in its MLS Next Pro minor league operation.

The minor league component could help streaming services create story-telling opportunities, which can attract viewers. The concept helped Liberty Media-owned Formula 1 expand its audience via a Netflix series, for example.

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Seth Bacon, MLS senior vice president of media said this MLS offering is a "package for the 21st-century media landscape."

Bacon said MLS had "numerous and productive discussions with every rights distributor," though he declined to name specific networks. He also concurred with Garber's comments that a new agreement would be reached by the end of the first quarter in 2022.

"We have a ton of momentum from our regular season and playoff viewership," said Bacon. "And we have the tailwinds of the 2026 World Cup," which will be played in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

When he was asked about the confidence level of luring a favorable media deal that will help stabilize MLS, Bacon said the league is "very enthusiastic about where we're going to land."

Major League Soccer increased viewership this season. Now it has to convince networks it's worth $300 million per year (1)

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Major League Soccer's mission to make soccer a dominant sport in the U.S.

This article was updated to reflect MLS Cup viewership on Disney.

Major League Soccer increased viewership this season. Now it has to convince networks it's worth $300 million per year (2024)

FAQs

What is the marketing strategy of the MLS? ›

The promotional and advertising strategy in the Major League Soccer marketing strategy is as follows: Major League Soccer's major marketing activities are built around structuring clubs, creating fan bases, inciting and encouraging partners to invest and to focus on the grassroots levels of the game.

How many people watch the MLS in a season? ›

The statistic provides information on the average number of TV viewers for regular season Major League Soccer (MLS) games in the United States from 2012 to 2021. During the 2021 regular season, an average of 285 thousand viewers tuned into each game, marking an 11 percent increase on the previous year.

What is the most important sports league for soccer in the United States? ›

Major League Soccer (MLS), North American professional football (soccer) league that is the highest level of soccer competition on that continent.

How many people watch the MLS finals? ›

The 2022 MLS Cup final between Los Angeles FC and Philadelphia Union was watched by over two million people in the United States, representing a new record for the competition. LAFC lifted the trophy for the first time after defeating the Union on penalties.

Which is the most successful marketing tactic? ›

Most effective marketing strategy: SEO marketing

SEO or search engine marketing tops the list of effective marketing strategies for small business, because it forms the base that all your other online marketing strategies will build upon.

What are the 4 competitive marketing strategies? ›

There are four main types of competitive strategies proposed by Michael Porter.
  • Cost leadership strategy.
  • Differentiation strategy.
  • Cost focus strategy.
  • Differentiation focus strategy.

Is MLS attendance increasing? ›

Overall, MLS attendance is up 5 percent over 2022 attendance. These 2023 MLS attendance numbers are current as of Sept. 11, 2023.

Is MLS getting more popular? ›

Disney 's ESPN averaged 14.8 million viewers for each of its NFL games last season while the 34 regular-season MLS matchups it aired in 2022 on ABC and ESPN's networks averaged 343,000 viewers. This marked the highest MLS viewership across Disney's networks since 2007.

Is MLS more popular than MLB? ›

If we base popularity on capacity at stadiums, MLS would rank second or third behind the NFL and MLB.

What is the fastest growing sport in the US 2023? ›

The 5 Fastest Growing Sports in America are Mostly Snowsports
  • #5 Snowboard Touring – 59.1% Increase.
  • #4 Off-Course Golf – 67.5% Increase.
  • #3 Winter Fat Biking – 69.4% Increase.
  • #2 Alpine Touring – 115.0% Increase.
  • #1 Pickleball – 171.1% Increase.
Sep 5, 2023

What is the richest sports league in America? ›

National Football League (NFL)

The NFL generates most of its revenue through broadcasting rights, sponsorship, and ticket sales. The league has a lucrative deal with television networks that brings in billions of dollars each year.

Which sport is growing fastest in USA? ›

The fastest-growing sport in America is pickleball, with participation among Americans ages 6 and older increasing 171.1% between 2018 and 2022.

Is MLS more popular than NBA? ›

The NFL and NBA get more viewers than the other two. The NHL gets at least 300 thousand to 400 thousand viewers a year. The MLS gets at least 200 thousand a year. While the NFL at least 15 million a year and NBA get at least 1.5 million a year.

Is MLS more popular than Premier league? ›

The EPL is one of the most popular leagues in the world in any sport so these numbers shouldn't be discouraging for the MLS. In fact the MLS average crowd is just under the Brazilian Série A. Average attendances in the MLS are better than the Mexican Liga MX, the Dutch Eredivisie and the Scottish Premiership.

How many people watch the MLS game compared to other sports? ›

MLB drew 64.6 million, an average of 26,843. ABC and ESPN televised 34 MLS games last year that averaged 343,300 viewers, while the league averaged 443,000 on Fox, 138,000 on FS1 plus 254,000 for Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision and UniMás.

What is the MLS growth strategy? ›

Essentially this strategy goes as follows: develop young players through your academy / development system, then after most likely having them play for your first team, sell them to another team (in the case of an MLS team, this has historically meant selling them abroad) for a nice return on investment.

What does target marketing mean in MLS? ›

Target marketing is a bit like a dating service for real estate. The goal is to match the right type of buyer to each property and market that property specifically to those types of buyers. In order to do this, an agent has to know the market very well.

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