MLS’s move to a major broadcast network and a prime viewing time looks to have been a great success over previous years, achieving results not seen since the move from ABC to ESPN. When the Seattle Sounders won their first-ever MLS Cup against Toronto FC, over 2 million tuned in to watch in the US: 1.44 million tuned in to watch on FOX, while 601,000 tuned in on Univision.
In Canada, they set a record with 1.43 million tuning in on TSN and another 92,000 on RDS. That made this game the most watched MLS game in Canadian history. This was the third time this year, all during the 2016 MLS playoffs, that TSN and RDS set a new record for viewing audience. In fact, TSN almost doubled their viewing audience for the final compared to the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal.
MLS Cup TV viewership numbers:— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) December 13, 2016
Fox: 1.411 million
TSN: 1.43 million
U.S. & Canada combined: 3.534 million
The game also drew an overnight rating of 1.0, according to Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily. That tied the record that was originally set in 2001 and matched in 2002, 2005 and 2007. That’s an increase of 150% over last year’s final between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew.
Such a large increase in the US audience for the game was a direct target of MLS and FOX’s decision to place the game on an OTA network on a Saturday night. Last year the game was on ESPN and went head to head against the NFL on a Sunday afternoon; any time MLS is not competing with the NFL the rating are sure to be better.
Just as importantly, with the move to OTA this year the game, and the lead-up marketing, was more widely visible. Ratings have previously seen a worrying drop - by almost half - since the move from ABC to ESPN in 2009. It is, of course, impossible to ignore that Seattle and Toronto are also two of the most popular and visible teams in the league, which always helps draws eyes.
With the new TV deal signed in 2015, broadcast rights for MLS cup alternate years between FOX and ESPN. Next year’s final will return to ESPN; in light of past performance, how they deal with the challenge to achieve similar ratings results will be interesting to see.