Seth Vertelney: Will Major League Soccer ever have major league television ratings?

If there is one tangible measure of how far Major League Soccer still has to go, it is television ratings.

There is a litany of evidence to support this claim, but one need look no further than the TV money raked in by the league's American sports contemporaries. The NFL, NBA and MLB all earn more than $1 billion annually in TV contract revenue, while the NHL receives $200 million each year.

For MLS, it's just $27 million.

While attendance and on-field play continue to improve and new stadiums spring up like weeds, TV viewership stands in stark opposition to some of the more feel-good stories the league has produced over the last decade. And that's bad news for any sports entity, because while gate and merchandising revenue are nice, TV money is the ultimate judge of a league's viability.

Despite some troubling numbers, the league's TV rating story is still in its opening chapters, and starting to turn for the better. The question, as it so often is with MLS though, is whether that growth is moving fast enough.

“I'm not going to kid you,” Jon Miller told Goal.com, “MLS is still very much in its infancy.”

Miller is president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, which secured MLS and U.S. national team rights prior to the 2012 season on a three year, $30 million deal. He uses this caveat when comparing MLS ratings to those of the NHL, a league many have targeted as Major League Soccer's next rung up in the American sports ladder, but one that significantly outperforms it in ratings.

“You can't compare MLS with NHL,” Miller said. “The NHL is much farther along and is a much much bigger property. MLS is still relatively young by comparison.”

Indisputably, MLS is still in its infancy at age 18, and comparatively speaking – and by that I mean comparing itself to itself – 2012 was a banner year for television viewership.

Boosted by its new partnership with NBC and its ongoing relationship with ESPN, 2012 was the most watched season in league history.

With sleek production, quality announcers, and in-depth pre and post-game shows, NBC and NBCSN drew an aggregate audience of 13.2 million in 2012, compared to just 2.7 million on Fox Soccer in 2011 (NBCSN is available in about twice as many homes as FSC but obviously, the numbers more than make up for this discrepancy).

“We were extremely pleased with our first year with NBC Sports,” MLS executive vice president Dan Courtemanche told Goal.com. “We felt that they really took the quality of the broadcasts to new levels.”

ESPN/ESPN2 showed improvement as well in 2012, averaging 311,000 viewers for its games, up 6.5 percent from 292,000 in 2011.

There was improvement to be sure, but there was also ugliness. Counting regular and post-season, 30 of NBCSN's 54 broadcasts attracted less than 100,000 viewers. The league's return to network TV was a flop, as the three matches shown on NBC averaged just a 0.4 rating and 521,000 viewers, putting them among the lowest rated live sporting events on network television during their respective weekends.

So, how does MLS go about affixing more eyeballs to their televised product?

Scheduling is a massive piece of the puzzle. When it comes to ratings success, the “when” is almost as important as the “what”.

“When we sit down and put together the entire league schedule, one of the top priorities is slotting in our national television partners,”  Courtemanche said.

There is a push-pull that occurs between the league and its broadcast partners when drawing up the schedule, one that essentially pits attendance versus television ratings.

“If I had my druthers, a lot of times I'd put MLS games on at five in the afternoon and go from five to 7:30,” Miller said. “But because of attendance considerations, and weather situations, they would rather play their games in prime-time under the lights where they can maximize their attendance. We certainly understand that.”

No ESPN or ESPN2 game in the second half of the 2012 season averaged more than 300,000 viewers. In the first half of the season, there were eight such matches. Timing was a major factor, as a large majority of those second half games began at 9:00 p.m. ET or later.

Part of optimal scheduling is having strong lead-in programming. In the world of television, the importance of quality lead-ins is impossible to understate.

On June 24, ESPN drew 888,000 viewers for a Portland-Seattle game, which marked the third largest regular-season cable audience in league history. The Cascadia rivalry was much less of a draw than the preceding program: England versus Italy in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal.

NBCN's top-rated match in 2012 was a FC Dallas-Portland game on Aug. 5. Viewers didn't show up en masse to watch Brek Shea match up against Kosuke Kimura, but instead, because the Olympics were shown immediately prior to the match.

Unfortunately, there are no Olympics or European Championships in 2013, but NBC's acquisition of full English Premier League rights brings with it some very intriguing lead-in potential.

However, the 2013 MLS campaign isn't going to be the best litmus test for EPL games as MLS lead-ins. After August 2013, when NBC's deal with the EPL starts, there is only one MLS game on NBCSN at a time with EPL lead-in potential: Sporting KC at Philadelphia on Oct. 26 at 3:00 p.m. ET.

Instead, the league will have to settle for the benefits of NBC's promotional clout.

“You're not going to have the ability to necessarily put a lot of live EPL games as lead-ins,” Miller said. “You will have the benefit of promoting MLS in those EPL games, and there are going to be EPL games on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, so they're going to have the benefit of a lot of promotion in those games.”

During those promotions, NBC will hope to reach what is Major League's Soccer's most important target audience, and the group that will ultimately determine the league's ratings destiny over the next few seasons.

Soccer fans.

“Our biggest challenge at Major League Soccer is not necessarily the fact that we don’t have soccer fans in the U.S. and Canada,” Courtemanche said. “It's the fact that we need to work hard at converting all of the soccer fans into fans of Major League Soccer.”

This is the crux of the league's television problem, and helps explain why the league and its broadcast partners are so reluctant to compare their ratings to those of America's other major sports.

EPL and Champions League matches have generally fared well on U.S. television. Major League Soccer doesn't need to make soccer fans out of football or basketball or hockey die-hards right now. It needs to convince Manchester United fans to also follow D.C. United.

Obviously, it's impossible to ignore the on-field differences in quality between Major League Soccer and the world's top leagues. Still, there are ways MLS can make inroads in converting fans, and one of the keys is leveraging its localness.

Courtemanche provided a hypothetical example of the league's marketing mentality. If a Chicago Fire player originally from Miami is having a standout season, MLS will pitch stories on that player to the Miami media during the week leading up to the Fire playing a nationally televised game. These are the ways the league needs to differentiate itself from its far-away soccer contemporaries.

Major League Soccer's contracts with both ESPN and NBC are up after the 2014 season. When the league's new TV deal is announced, we'll have a tangible measure of just how far it has come.

Follow SETH VERTELNEY on Twitteror shoot him an email

Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Sy moves up, Villar enters Forbes list of billionaires
    Sy moves up, Villar enters Forbes list of billionaires

    Eleven Filipinos are included in Forbes’ 2015 list of richest people in the world. Filipino-Chinese tycoon Henry Sy Sr. continues to be the wealthiest man in the Philippines. The 90-year-old SM supermalls, banking and property tycoon ranked 73rd among the world’s richest with an increased net worth of $14.2 billion from $11.4 billion last year. Sy’s net worth was attributed to the continued growth of his SM Investments Corp. and his more recent venture, the City of Dreams Manila resort and …

  • Jolo apologizes to Bong in visit
    Jolo apologizes to Bong in visit

    Cavite Vice Gov. Jolo Revilla wept and embraced his father as he apologized for the “accidental” shooting incident in their Ayala Alabang residence, the family’s spokesman said yesterday. Lawyer Raymund Fortun came out of the private room at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Muntinlupa City to speak to reporters, who were barred from entering the hospital compound during the visit of Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. …

  • Australian drug smugglers being taken to Indonesian island for execution - media
    Australian drug smugglers being taken to Indonesian island for execution - media

    By Jane Wardell and Beawiharta SYDNEY/DENPASAR, Indonesia (Reuters) - Two convicted Australian drug smugglers were removed from a prison in Bali on Wednesday to be taken to an Indonesian island where they will be shot by firing squad, Australian media reported. The planned executions of Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31, have ratcheted up diplomatic tensions amid repeated pleas of mercy for the pair from Australia and thrown a spotlight on Indonesia's increasing use of the death …

  • Another source of SAF execution video identified
    Another source of SAF execution video identified

    The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) is still tracing the source of the video showing one of the wounded police commandos being finished off by Muslim rebels during the encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Jan. 25. A source from the Department of Justice (DOJ) said they have identified two persons who first uploaded the video that went viral over social networking sites. The supposed source of the video was elusive and claimed that somebody just placed it on an external drive. The …

  • N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills
    N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills

    North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea and vowed "merciless" retaliation Monday as the US and South Korea kicked off joint military drills denounced by Pyongyang as recklessly confrontational. The annual exercises always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North's missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of sabre-rattling. "If there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the …

  • US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines
    US billionaire says WWII Japanese ship found in Philippines

    Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said Wednesday he had found one of Japan's biggest and most famous battleships on a Philippine seabed, some 70 years after American forces sank it during World War II. Excited historians likened the discovery, if verified, to finding the Titanic, as they hailed the American billionaire for his high-tech mission that apparently succeeded after so many failed search attempts by others. Allen posted photos and video online of parts of what he said was the …

  • How Islamic is Islamic State group? Not very, experts say
    How Islamic is Islamic State group? Not very, experts say

    CAIRO (AP) — Three British schoolgirls believed to have gone to Syria to become "jihadi" brides. Three young men charged in New York with plotting to join the Islamic State group and carry out attacks on American soil. A masked, knife-wielding militant from London who is the face of terror in videos showing Western hostages beheaded. …

  • Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together
    Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together

    FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — After spending 67 years together as devoted husband and wife, there was no question how Floyd and Violet Hartwig would end their lives — together. …

POLL

Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Loading...
Poll Choice Options