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On MLS TV ratings and the growth of a cable sports network

MLS Rivalry Week brought about discussion over MLS' ratings on ESPN, NBC Sports, and UniMas. The biggest takeaway is that we're able to have this discussion at all.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

MLS and NBC bet big this weekend with a Rivalry Week suite featuring three live matches across NBC and NBC Sports as well as an in studio live look in show. The ratings for the nightcap between Portland and Seattle were tweeted out this morning, as well as the ESPN2 Dallas-Houston tilt the following morning.

Not surprisingly, the fact that MLS' most buzzed about rivalry got 209k viewers in primetime on Saturday night was the cause of some consternation. Numbers viewed out of context are just numbers, so let's try and give those figures some substance.

MLS is not the centerpiece of NBC Sports, that honor belongs to NHL hockey. NBC Sports Network is averaging 448,000 through 27 NHL games, which puts it on pace to be the best yet on NBC Sports. The net averaged 348k in '10-11, and 332k last year.

What has worked well for NBC in raising NHL ratings is Wednesday Night Rivalry games, which are currently averaging 682k through seven telecasts. So you can see what MLS was attempting to do with rivalry week. NBC kicked of their NHL Wednesday Night Rivalry series with a Bruins-Rangers game watched by 956k viewers, the most watched NHL game on NBC Sports Network ever.

Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers has a few decades on Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders, and Wednesday is a much better night for TV than Saturday. F1 on NBC Sports also kicked off this past weekend, with the Australian Grand Prix getting 124k viewers live and 138k on the replay.

So in the context of the network, it appears MLS is somewhere between hockey and F1 racing. The Australian Grand Prix did do better than Dallas-Houston that afternoon on ESPN2.

Perhaps the context needed is against other soccer broadcasts. Here are FOX Soccer's five most-watched matches ever:

1) June 25, 2011 - USA vs. Mexico Gold Cup Final (1.1 million viewers)
2) February 6, 2011 - Chelsea vs. Liverpool Barclays Premier League (579,000)
3) March 5, 2013 - Manchester United vs. Real Madrid UEFA Champions League Round of 16 (520,000)
4) October 28, 2012 - Chelsea vs. Manchester United Barclays Premier League (499,000)
5) March 10, 2013 - Manchester United vs. Chelsea FA Cup Round 6 (460,000)

Fox Soccer's EPL coverage has the same handicap that F1 racing has, it's a breakfast time broadcast on the east coast and the west coast is still asleep. Big matches that Fox has put on the broadcast channel, such as Champions League finals, have pulled better than 1.1 million.

According to Larry Tiscornia (@MLSonTV), MLS' best TV partner thus far hasn't been broadcasting in English:

Try as I might, finding ratings for UniMas proved elusive, so we'll have to take Tiscornia's word for it. UniMas is available over the air in many markets, but in some MLS markets it's only available in special cable television packages. I can say that UniMas' broadcast of Mexican World Cup Qualifiers have been the highest telecasts ever on UniMas, getting 3.3 million for the qualifier against Jamaica and 4.3 for a warm up against Denmark.

It's unlikely MLS was anywhere near there, but we do know that UniMas has gotten two LA Galaxy matches to begin the year.

If there's anything that the context tells us, it's that cable sports is hard business. ESPN is a marketing machine, and they have some valuable properties. Outside of that, it's a struggle. NBC Sports is still a new network, but it's expanding.

Still there's much to find encouraging. D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls did a 0.7 (preliminary, likely adjusted down) on NBC Saturday. NBC is offering a solid product with its MLS broadcasts, and hopefully this challenge is a bit of a shot in the arm for ESPN who also offer a fine product but with much less advertising.

MLS is still growing and events like Rivalry Week are part of that growth. Their success will be measured not by whether they were ratings busters, but if they helped get the word out that this is happening.