MLS Takes on NFL Thanksgiving in Quest for TV Deal as EPL Looms

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As preparations get underway for this weekend’s launch of the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, the stateside soccer league looks to keep its regular-season ratings momentum going throughout the 13-match tournament. The postseason numbers are of particular interest this fall, as MLS prepares to lock in the most lucrative media rights contract in its 26-year history.

National MLS telecasts in 2021 averaged 285,000 viewers per game across the various Disney, Fox Sports and Univision platforms, which marked a 3% increase compared to 276,000 in the pre-pandemic 2019 season. If at first blush the net gain in overall deliveries doesn’t appear all that remarkable, bear in mind that the expansion of the MLS audience coincides with a vertiginous decline in overall TV usage. Since the summer of 2019, the number of Americans parked in front of the tube has dropped 21%, which amounts to a defection of some 19 million viewers. Any audience gains made in the face of that sort of universal shrinkage are worth noting.

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“This has been one of best years ever as a league, and our averages are the highest they’ve been under the current contract,” Seth Bacon, MLS senior VP of media, said in a phone interview. The league is at the tail end of the seventh year of an eight-year pact, and in recent months it has had talks with its incumbent partners and a range of other outlets. “The growth across all the various platforms speaks volumes about our value proposition,” he added.

The MLS ratings boost is even more noteworthy in light of the cord-cutting proclivities of its apple-cheeked audience. The average age of an MLS enthusiast is 39.6 years, making it the youngest pro-sports fan base in North America, ahead of the NBA (41.9 years) and NHL (43.8). Millennials and Gen Z-ers account for 58% of all MLS supporters; together, these groups in the last two years have reduced their overall TV usage by nearly 40%.

The Spanish-language MLS telecasts on Univision and UniMás had a slight advantage over the ESPN/ABC productions, as the Disney nets averaged 276,000 viewers per match to the Miami-based conglomerate’s 284,000. Disney’s MLS deliveries were up 12% versus 2019’s average (246,000 viewers per match), while Univision grew its numbers by 18%. The Fox networks finished in the back of the pack with an average draw of 211,000 viewers; year-to-year comps for Fox/FS1 were skewed by a July 2019 Atlanta United-New York Red Bulls match, which scared up an uncharacteristically robust 1.61 million viewers, thanks in large part to a lead-in from the Women’s World Cup Final.

While Bacon said that he believes the league’s growth will prove invaluable as it hunkers down to negotiate for a new media package, he’s tabling the rights talk until after the Dec. 11 championship match. “We’ve had numerous and productive discussions about our unique set of rights, but right now we’re most focused on how to build momentum through the playoffs.”

Seven of the playoff matches will air on a broadcast network, and one in particular is being presented during what amounts to America’s second-greatest secular holiday after Super Sunday. On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 25, the Colorado Rapids will host an MLS conference semifinal match against either Portland or Minnesota, in front of what’s bound to be the league’s single largest lead-in audience. The Thanksgiving match will air after Fox’s coverage of the noon ET Bears-Lions game; per Nielsen, the last time the two NFC North rivals met on Turkey Day, Fox averaged 27.1 million viewers.

Fox will promote the MLS playoff during its NFL broadcast, but the competition will be staggering. The match will air directly opposite CBS’ coverage of the 4:30 p.m. Raiders-Cowboys showdown, which is a shoo-in to win out as the season’s highest-rated regular-season NFL broadcast. CBS’ most recent holiday outing in Dallas, a 26-15 Bills upset, averaged 32.6 million viewers two years ago.

MLS fans who find themselves exiled to the kids’ table can stream the Thanksgiving playoff match via Fox’s digital platforms.

As for the rest of the postseason slate, Bacon believes that the aftershocks of what’s been called the most thrilling Decision Day in MLS history should go a long way toward keeping fans plugged in throughout the next three weeks. “The level of competition, and the parity between the teams have really delivered this year,” Bacon said. “We went into that last day with a whole lot of unknowns, and now we’re set up for what should be an exciting, engaging playoffs.… So we’re bullish on our prospects for the near-future and beyond.”

The postseason tourney aside, the outlook for the somewhat-more-distant-future may begin to take shape shortly after the English Premier League wraps its own bidding process on Thursday. NBC Sports’ six-year, $1 billion deal expires in May, and should the company succeed in retaining its exclusivity, the outlay for a new pact is expected to top $2 billion.

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