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MLS Cup Ratings: Move from primetime impacts viewing numbers

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Depending on how you crunch the numbers, they were either quite bad or just fine.

The massive crowd inside the stadium didn’t quite equate to equally big audience on TV.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

In Seattle, the interest in the MLS Cup championship game between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC was at record levels. Elsewhere across the country, not so much.

The final viewership numbers for the championship game on ABC — the first time the game has been broadcast on an over-the-air ABC channel in more than 10 years — are in and a total of 823,000 viewers watched the Sounders triumph over Toronto FC, according to a release from ESPN. The number represents a modest increase from the 2017 final broadcast — also between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC — on ESPN, a ABC/Disney property. From the release:

Sunday’s audience is a 3 percent increase over the last MLS Cup on the Disney networks in 2017 (803,000 viewers on ESPN) and the company’s most-viewed Major League Soccer championship match since 2014 (964,000 on ESPN),” according to the release.

The 2019 MLS Cup audience peaked late in the second half (4:45-5 p.m. ET) with 1,092,000 million viewers. Locally, Seattle-Tacoma, the MLS Cup host market, averaged a 13.2 rating, the best MLS Cup rating on record for this market. (Note: Toronto is not a Nielsen market.)

As expected, the best local market rating was in Seattle, which garnered a 13.2 local number.

While the 823,000 number is an increase from the last time ABC/Disney broadcast the final, it is a substantial decrease from the 2019 final between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers, which drew 1.53 million viewers. However, there are a couple of caveats when comparing the numbers. First, the 2019 final was held a month earlier than in 2017, and directly against the NFL. Also, the Dec. 10 game last year was held on a Saturday, with no college football or NFL to compete with. It was also played in prime time, with a kickoff of 7:30 p.m. local time. Finally, it should be noted that having one of the teams in Canada meant any Toronto viewership was not reported by ABC.

Interestingly, the ratings on Spanish broadcast television and in Canada were more robust, relatively speaking. On TUDN, the final registered 447,000 viewers, the best rating since the 2016 final between the Sounders and Toronto FC. Combined with the online audience, MLS Cup actually outdrew the equivalent American audience for the Liverpool-Manchester City match earlier that day. On TSN in Canada, the game saw an impressive 748,000 viewers tune in, almost equalling the ABC numbers.

Next year, the game returns to the Fox networks. With the change in the MLS schedule which saw the final moved from a date with limited competition (December) to the business end of the football season, it is unclear if the game will be broadcast on FS1 or FOX, which have full slates of college and pro football on Saturday and Sunday respectively in November.