As TV and digital viewing habits evolve, MLS looks to stay ahead of the curve

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MLS has been a leader in the digital space, but it's still fighting to grow its TV audience. What's next?

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My days watching Major League Soccer date back to the inaugural game in league history.

I watched Eric Wynalda’s goal in the inaugural game from the carpeted floor of the family room in my childhood home in Alexandria, Virginia. I mimicked Dave Johnson’s “It’s in the net!” goal call in my backyard with friends on sunny afternoons. So while I may never have battled the old Direct Kick package – the extent of my pay-per-view soccer watching was catching Francesco Totti’s Roma claim the Scudetto in 2001 – my days watching MLS trace back a couple decades.

It’s not hard to see how far the league has come in its TV coverage. What’s more difficult to decipher is where it is going.

As far as we’re concerned, where we fit with our tech-savvy fan base, our commitment [is] to deliver content to fans anywhere, at any time, on any device.

- Seth Bacon, MLS senior VP of media

In the world of cord-cutting and streaming apps, MLS has made a push towards the new digital world with MLS Live and Facebook Live game broadcasts. Digital is the future. While some viewers watch the national broadcasts or tune in to their local team’s broadcast, many fans tell me they are MLS Live subscribers. A quick question on Twitter this weekend asking how fans watch MLS led to a wave of responses, almost all of which pointed to MLS Live or streaming video as the preferred method of watching MLS games.

MLS senior vice president of media, Seth Bacon, said the league has seen consistent growth in that area. While the league declined to reveal the number of subscribers to MLS Live, Bacon said the league has seen “double-digit growth in the number of subscribers for that product for at least the past four seasons,” including from 2016 to 2017.

Its streaming presence may continue to evolve as that audience grows. Bacon said streaming is looked at as “one of the biggest growth areas of focus” for the league office in relation to media properties.

“We are exploring so many avenues right now,” Bacon said. “We’re doing a lot with our partners at ESPN, Fox and Univision as they look at new ways to deliver their content. We are having a lot of engaged discussions with the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Amazons of the world to figure out how we can distribute content on their platforms, as well. As far as we’re concerned, where we fit with our tech-savvy fan base, our commitment [is] to deliver content to fans anywhere, at any time, on any device. The future is very bright for MLS in terms of how we are going to distribute games and make content available to our fans.”

Some fans have wondered whether making MLS Live free might help to grow a bigger audience for the league, giving more casual fans access to any game at any time. Don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Bacon said he believes MLS has “one of the best out-of-market packages in the business” and that MLS Live needs to balance “driving the fan base and driving revenue.”

The games on Facebook Live, however, are free. Univision will stream at least 22 MLS games this season, and that number could rise in the future. Bacon described this year as a learning process.

MLS also saw the highest viewership on an opening weekend (1.63 million) since 2004, when Freddy Adu debuted.

While the exploration into the world of streaming and digital content continues, the question that lingers over the league is whether it can increase its TV viewership to aid the league’s growth. The next TV deal will be a vital part of that equation. More money from national TV partners could mean increased spending on the on-field product. MLS signed a deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision that runs through 2022 and pays $720 million over the life of the contract.

MLS disputed a recent World Soccer Talk report that its numbers were down 25 percent on Univision this season. Through the first five weeks of the season, the league said it was up across the board – 44 percent on Fox Sports 1, 42 percent on ESPN, 45 percent on ESPN2, 11 percent on Univision, 29 percent on Fox Deportes and 21 and 43 percent on TSN and TVA in Canada, respectively.

MLS also saw the highest viewership on an opening weekend (1.63 million) since 2004, when Freddy Adu debuted, including the highest-viewed opening weekend match on Spanish-language TV ever (509,000 viewers for LA Galaxy vs. FC Dallas). That growth continues internationally, too. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s debut with the Chicago Fire, for example, was the highest-rated game ever on Eurosport.

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the league lags behind its regional rival, Liga MX, and international competition like the English Premier League – not to mention its domestic competition like the NHL, NBA and MLB. MLS, however, remains optimistic about its growth.  

“We are coming off of yet another record viewership season last year when we had more people than ever watch our games on national television,” Bacon said. “We have engaged partners across the board who are committing to not only putting game on the best possible channels, with the best possible lead-ins, with the best-possible times in programming windows, but they’re also committing to extended coverage with pregame, more coverage on their news and info platforms, digital coverage, social coverage. All of these ways they’re trying to embrace Major League Soccer across all of their platforms to help grow the property.

“They’re doing that for a couple reasons: One, they see value in our fan base and the value of our sport, and two, they’re selling out all their commercial inventory. We are very fortunate we are able to drive revenues to our media partners and they are out of in-game inventory, so we together work with them to package our media, package our content and find new ways to create revenue and fan-growth opportunities with ESPN, Fox and Univision.”

That last part is key. Seeing MLS become more a part of the national media conversation with content outside of live game broadcasts is vital to growing the sport and league. Efforts to increase that product – whether it’s through live SportsCenter at MLS games or discussion about the league on Colin Cowherd’s show – could play a crucial role in what the next TV deal looks like.

That, in turn, matters for those who want to see the on-field product continue to get better. The league has come a long way from that first Wynalda goal. It’s got a long way to go, still. How we watch it and how many new viewers tune in may determine how quickly it gets there.

The Final Third

Home and away

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to learn a lot about the MLS standings in the next few weeks.

Early-season results can always be swayed by the number of home and away games teams encounter thanks to the scheduling powers-that-be. Teams that have had home-heavy schedules – Orlando (4 of 5), Chicago (4 of 6), Houston (4 of 6), San Jose (4 of 6) – will need to begin to prove themselves on the road. Meanwhile, teams that have had road-heavy schedules – Minnesota (5 of 7) and Toronto (4 of 6) – will soon get a chance to enjoy the comforts of home.

These ebbs and flows tend recalibrate the standings, and these are big stretches for those aforementioned teams.

Chicago now faces three very difficult games on the road: Toronto, LA and New York Red Bulls. Minnesota has home games against Colorado, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City upcoming. Orlando plays three of its next four on the road with tests at NYCFC, Toronto and Houston. TFC has three straight home games and Houston has three of its next four at home.

There are no guarantees in this league. A home game doesn’t equal three points. A road game isn’t a sure loss. But we’ll start to get a better picture of where these teams stand early in the season. As Portland showed last year, it’s not easy to get into the playoffs when you can’t get a result on the road. It’s also essential to take care of business at home.

Chicago and Orlando will hope to get a couple points out of those road trips. Minnesota and Toronto must take care of business at home.

Orlando impresses

Speaking of Orlando:I know the Lions have had a home-heavy stretch and have showed why winning in that stadium is going to be one of the toughest things to do in MLS, but I’ve been impressed with a few facets of this team.

What stands out most is the impact of emotional leaders. The first two years of Orlando City were defined by youth. As I wrote in Orlando at the end of the 2015 season, the Lions played more players under 21 than any team in the league … by more than double any other team.

That strategy fell short of the playoffs, and this year’s team under Jason Kreis has gone in another direction entirely. While the first iteration of Orlando City had nine players younger than 21 years old start a total of 95 games, this team has just four players aged 21 or younger on the first-team squad and only one has seen more than one minute of action this year: 20-year-old defender Tommy Redding.

Kreis is leaning on veterans, and you can see the impact of guys like Jonathan Spector (31 years old), Will Johnson (30), Joe Bendik (27) and even the off-field bonding brought by a guy like Antonio Nocerino (32). Spector and Johnson, especially, have been impressive, providing great balance to the younger faces still on the field, all of whom benefitted from minutes early in their development (Cyle Larin, Carlos Rivas, Redding and Cristian Higuita).

If they can continue to get goals from Larin in key moments, this Orlando team might make its first playoff appearance. (And no, Orlando City fans, I don’t regret my preseason prediction. Not yet, at least.)

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Paul Tenorio's column, Sideline Views, appears every Monday on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.