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MLS Cup Playoff ratings rebound after rough start

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El Trafico was the star, but there were several other solid numbers.

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MLS: MLS Cup Conference Finals-Seattle Sounders FC at Los Angeles FC Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 MLS Cup Playoff TV ratings got off to a bit of a rocky start, but still managed to score the highest rated soccer match in the United States last week.

The 2019 version of the MLS Cup Playoffs unveiled a new playoff format with aggregate series scrapped in favor of single-elimination games at the home of the higher seed.

The thought behind the change was to mitigate the impact the international breaks had on the tournament, and seamlessly go from one playoff round to the next, culminating in the MLS Cup final that would end before winter temperatures take a firm hold on the country.

One problem that has continued to confound MLS and its television partners are the exact scheduling of the playoff games. With the business end of the schedule occurring during the meat of the NFL and college football seasons, as well as the start of the NBA, finding time slots on the weekend has essentially been a non-starter. Thus, MLS has generally taken what it could get, resulting in midweek games that can impact attendance numbers.

Those games have generally drawn decent ratings, but MLS has been of two minds in dealing with the optics of less-than-full games during the week, or less-than-ideal broadcasts on obscure channels on the weekend.

First rounds

The issue was put into stark relief in the first round of the MLS Playoff, as the Real Salt Lake/Portland matchup was relegated to ESPNNews on Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7pm. The game netted a paltry 80,000 viewers. Meanwhile, the game broadcast that same day on TUDN —the Spanish-language sports network — involving Toronto and DC United could only muster 84,000 viewers.

Games that managed to be broadcast on more traditional channels (FS1, ESPN) faired significantly better, with the LA Galaxy’s visit to Minnesota United, and the Seattle Sounders prevailing in a thrilling 4-3 extra time game against FC Dallas, registering 317,000 and 264,000 respectively.

Conference semifinals

The Conference Semifinals on Oct. 23 got off to a similarly rocky start, with what can only be described as a shock rating for the NYCFC matchup against Toronto FC. While Canadian viewership isn’t registered by Nielsen, the game registered an alarming 111,000 viewers on FS1. The Sounders victory over Real Salt Lake was only marginally better, with 164,000 people watching.

However, matters would improve dramatically when the games moved to the ESPN networks. The Atlanta victory over the Philadelphia Union scored a solid 303,000 viewers on ESPN2, especially impressive for a secondary channel.

That was nothing compared to what happened in Los Angeles, where the much-anticipated matchup between the Galaxy and Los Angeles FC was contested at Banc of California Stadium. There was significant hype leading into the match, as LAFC had never beaten the Galaxy, and the game featured one of the biggest stars in world football in Zlatan Ibrahimović, and big Mexican talent in Carlos Vela. The game did not fail to disappoint, as the LAFC finally exorcised their demons in dispatching the Galaxy in a wild 5-3 thriller.

Viewers were similarly engaged, as the match registered an incredible 961,000 viewers between ESPN (589,000) and ESPN Deportes (375,000). Not only was “El Trafico” was the most watched soccer game of the week on ESPN, it was also the most watched soccer game on cable or network television for the week as well, edging out a high-profile matchup on NBC featuring Liverpool and Tottenham (915,000).

Conference finals

The conference finals had a tough act to follow, but registered very solid ratings. The Sounders’ victory over LAFC managed an impressive 389,000 viewers (ESPN Deportes not yet available), while the Toronto matchup with Atlanta United was arguably more impressive in registering 359,000 on FS1, going up against Game 7 of the World Series. The 2019 figures are an improvement over the 2018 Conference Finals ratings (two legs):

Atlanta United FC vs New York Red Bulls [ESPN; 5:00] (334,000)

Portland Timbers vs Sporting Kansas City [FS1; 7:30] (237,000)

New York Red Bulls vs Atlanta United [FS1; 7:30] (266,000)

Sporting Kansas City vs Portland Timbers [ESPN; 9:30] (353,000)

MLS Cup, which features a rematch between the Sounders and Toronto FC, will be broadcast on ABC, Univision, TUDN and TSN. As with previous rounds, Toronto viewership will not feature in the U.S. ratings.

Top 20 soccer ratings—October 21-27, 2019