SVG Biz Report: MLS, Part 2 — Spanish-Language Nets See Ratings Growth

Major League Soccer has seen double-digit Nielsen increases in viewership in the early stages of the 2015 season, and the audience increase has been good for Univision Communications services’ Friday nights. With the league averting a work stoppage and reaching a new collective-bargaining agreement with its players, the simulcast of the March 6 match between defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago Fire made UniMás and Univision Deportes Network (UDN) the first Hispanic-aimed services to kick off a major U.S. sports league’s season. The match drew an aggregated 341,000 viewers.

Through May 8, UniMas and UDN telecasts averaged 266,000 viewers on Friday nights, up 30% from its 2014 mark, outdelivering national networks FS1, Fox Deportes and ESPN Deportes by significant margins.

In addition to a 65% jump to 168,000 adults 18-49, UniMás and UDN are scoring particularly well with younger viewers, a good sign for MLS in 2015 and beyond. The Friday-night matches have averaged 102,000 adults 18-34, 85% more than during the 2014 campaign. Network officials say those numbers represent the top performances in that demo among the national networks.

“We’re very excited about the performance so far,” says UDN President Juan Carlos Rodriguez, who expects more in both the short and the long term. “MLS has the right executive team, the right owners, and the right stadiums. The challenges remain in getting better players.”

He believes that, over the next 10-12 years, invigorated by what he believes will be a successful play to return the World Cup to U.S. soil in 2026, MLS will enhance its player rosters and become the fastest-growing U.S. sport behind only the NFL and NBA.

Rodriguez points out that Univision telecasts have improved under a new technological game plan. Whereas, in the past, the programmer had sent a pair of trucks to game sites — one for mixing, the other for uplink — with 30 people in front of and behind the camera, it has become more efficient using half the personnel and equipment complement.

UniMás and UDN are now rolling one truck and sending the files and feed to a studio in Miami, where graphics and replays are mixed into the presentation.

“We have more control in Miami,” Rodriguez explains. “We’re putting on better-quality matches using 12 cameras, compared with seven. We’re investing the cost savings, and the result has been better telecasts.”

He is also sanguine about the gains Univision has made with its initial entry into SAP with the league.

Rodriguez is also sanguine about the gains Univision has made with its initial entry into SAP with the league. Through May 8, the MLS telecasts connected with 48,000 non-Hispanic viewers on average, a 167% jump from last season. One-third of that total are between the ages of 18 and 34, with that subset also surging at 167% rate.

He notes, though, that the English-language calls by former MLS and U.S. national team player Paul Caligiuri and play-by-play announcer Ramsés Sandoval remain a work in progress.

“This has not been a matter of turning the button on or off,” he says, adding that some technical challenges have largely been resolved with distributors. “We’re still looking for the right rhythm of the telecasts. At this point, we’re still trying to get the right blend of technology, color, passion, and volume in getting Hispanic-style telecasts and players to resonate with the general marketplace. We’re still fine-tuning that, but this is going to be big hit.”

League and network executives expect MLS numbers to improve as the season progresses, the NBA and NHL end their playoffs, and an expansive fútbol slate takes center stage this summer.

Rodriguez points to the globalization of the game — the most advanced of any sport, in his opinion — and a year-round schedule, which lifts soccer’s profile in North America during the warmer months. “We’re going to super-serve fans” with Univision’s upcoming coverage of the Gold Cup, as well as the MLS All-Star Game.

Next year, Univision holds the Spanish-language rights to the Copa América Centenario, which will feature 10 CONMEBOL nations — including Argentina and Brazil — plus six CONCACAF countries — Mexico and the U.S. among them.

Rodriguez says the 32-match event June 3-26, 2016, will be bigger than the 2014 FIFA World Cup and become the most-viewed soccer tournament in the history of Spanish-language television in the States.

Fox is also gearing up for Champions and Europa League Finals, the FA Cup title match, the Women’s World Cup from Canada in June-July and the International Champions Cup tournament that will showcase such top clubs as Barcelona, FC Porto, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Paris St. Germain, and Club America, as well as MLS’s Galaxy, Red Bulls, San Jose Earthquakes, and New York City FC (NYCFC).

“All of the soccer — the Champions League, the Women’s World Cup, the Gold Cup, the ICC — will be beneficial to MLS,” says Nathanson. With Fox returning to MLS after a three-year absence, he notes that, for first time, the programmer, via FS1, will cover the league’s All-Star Game, which pits its top players versus Tottenham HotSpur in Denver on July 29.

He notes that promos for the WWC in Canada — kicking off on June 6 — will move into high gear. For instance, a couch gag involving the women’s team ran during the May 10 episode of The Simpsons, and strikers Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan appeared recently on American Idol, noting that the competition’s winner will record Fox’s WWC anthem.

Bacon is confident that MLS will score more with the WWC, men’s national-team matches, and the Gold Cup.

“The more casual soccer fans will gravitate toward those events, and that should get more of them to come under our tent,” he says. “Then, it’s our job to keep them there.”

To that end, MLS will play through a couple of rivalry sessions — old and new — with “Heineken Presents MLS Rivalry Weeks” on tap during the last weekends of June and August.

The first installment of Rivalry Week will include the Texas Derby between FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo, kicking off on Friday June 26, with UniMás supplying coverage at 9 p.m. ET. The first-ever clash at Yankee Stadium between Big Apple clubs NYCFC and the Red Bulls is set for Sunday June 28, with ESPN2 on the pitch at 5 p.m., and Cascadia Cup foes Seattle and Portland, OR, at Providence Park will air on FS1 at 7 p.m. The second Rivalry Week will feature top matchups, including Los Angeles at San Jose, CA, in the new Avaya Stadium (UniMás, 11 p.m.), Seattle at Portland (ESPN2, 5 p.m.), and D.C. United visiting the Red Bulls for the Atlantic Cup (FS1, 7 p.m.)

According to Bacon, fans got “their beaks wet” this past Sunday on FS1 at 7 p.m., in what was the first iteration of the Hudson River Derby, with NYCFC crossing the waterway to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., where the home team earned a 2-1 victory.

“These competitions will be organic and geographic,” says Bacon. “We’re going to make the Rivalry Weeks tentpole events.”

Click here for SVG Biz Report: MLS, Part 1.