The MLS Cup was held this past weekend with the Portland Timbers emerging victorious over the Columbus Crew. Congratulations to them both on their successful seasons. Naturally, immediately after the contest soccer fans across the country were discussing all aspects of the game, from the play on the field, to the actions of the fans, and then even the growth of soccer in the country. Given the impressive display of attendance by clubs at all levels this year – who can forget Chattanooga FC’s 18,000 plus in their NPSL Championship game against Cosmos B – it was hardly a surprise the conversation would turn to television ratings for the MLS Cup.
As I saw people discuss figures for the MLS Cup, my thoughts moved to the television related developments of the Cosmos and other NASL clubs. A quick search of the internet for NASL ratings proved fruitless. This should not surprise anyone; it is hardly likely that a young league trying to build a following while in the lower divisions of American soccer would have strong television ratings. Certainly, no one would expect the NASL/Cosmos numbers to be on the level of the more established MLS and its franchises, which themselves consistently lag behind the more established foreign leagues with American soccer viewers. And in fact, it is unlikely that NASL fans would expect huge ratings - most are happy just to see their team’s games on television. Nonetheless, fans love arguing over stats and ratings have become just another stat to be debated.
In the absence of hard numbers, what do we know? Although not entirely quantifiable, the growth in television coverage over the last couple of years suggests positive growth. In 2015 fans could watch nearly every NASL game on ESPN3, each team (with the exception of the Silverbacks) was on local television by the end of the year, and the league was on a national television network as well – One World Sports. That is a good start, not bad for a young league as a matter of fact. What else do we know?
There have been some positive reports of certain teams doing well on local tv, in particular I have heard that FC Edmonton and Minnesota United have good local television ratings. Also, the Cosmos game in Cuba reportedly did well ratings wise, in addition to One World Sports it was simulcast on ESPN. Further, the increased investment of One World Sports in NASL in general, and the Cosmos in particular, would indicate the network is financially benefiting from the relationship. One World Sports began by only televising Cosmos home games two years ago, by the end of this season it had moved to showing all Cosmos games, a regular NASL game of the week, a weekly NASL highlight show, and a weekly Cosmos pre-game show. On the surface this seems like a strong commitment and would suggest they are seeing a positive return on their investment.
All of this looks good from afar, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it is a strong showing for such a young league. As the league continues to grow we will continue to see more details emerge concerning increased television coverage, hopefully culminating with other nationwide deals that complement the existing One World Sports exposure. Notably, a key development to monitor regarding the strength of the One World Sports relationship will be the NASL schedule for 2016 and whether or not the Wednesday games will continue. There have been sporadic reports that some teams find the Wednesday games cumbersome, if this is true, their appearance on the schedule will indicate whether or not clubs find them to be financially rewarding. The impact off television scheduling on teams cannot be overstated because as the league grows, scheduling and television programming will become inextricably linked.
The discussions surrounding the MLS Cup’s television ratings serve to remind us that you cannot have a successful league if you do not have strong television numbers. Developments around the NASL indicate the league is going in the right direction. NASL watchers will continue to monitor these developments closely, and preferably from our living rooms as we watch the NASL weekly highlight show.