By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 31, 2020) US Soccer Players – Modern sports can’t exist without television. The explosion of satellite TV two decades ago and later the internet helped fuel soccer’s growth in this country. While fans still enjoy attending games in person, the ongoing pandemic has put a hold on that experience for millions.
In what has been an unusual year for the game and most everything else, much of the TV ratings reflect the yearning of fans to watch their favorite teams and players following the coronavirus pause. Fans, both in this country and around the globe, were without sports for months. Since fans in most places can’t attend games, TV and streaming services remain the only options at the moment.
This summer, a time often limited to national team tournaments and club friendlies, has had a different feel. Instead, June and July saw the resumption of domestic leagues both in North America and in Europe. UEFA’s Champions League took center stage for much of August. Americans have become accustomed to watching games from Europe in the mornings and MLS in the evenings. It’s those rituals fans missed most, along with watching in crowded bars, that turned our living room sofas into the only place to catch games. The options were plentiful this summer as North American soccer returned with the MLS is Back Tournament, Mexico’s Liga MX, and the NWSL.
Europe’s top leagues resumed early. First the Bundesliga, followed by the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga. All of these tournaments have had varying degrees of success among US audiences over the past few months as American TV networks have had to reimagine how they deliver telecasts to home-bound fans.
Major League Soccer
MLS has always had a tough go when it comes to national television ratings. This very unusual season has been no different. Still, there have been some bright spots when it comes to national ratings and on-field innovations. The MLS is Back Tournament’s knockout stages averaged 199,214 viewers on Fox Sports 1, ESPN, and ESPN2. Right when the tournament was heating up, viewership dropped some 10% from 222,000 average viewers compared to the group stage. The league’s Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision’s networks averaged another 94,000 viewers.
The reason could be tied to the relatively low stakes associated with MLS is Back. The group stage, for example, had seen evening kickoffs averaging 221,957 viewers on the three English-language networks where games were shown. On ESPN, the 24-hour cable sports network said the group stage averaged 240,786 viewers, about even with the 240,903 viewers the MLS regular season had averaged the year before. Over on Fox Sports, however, ratings saw a 14% drop compared to 2019.
MLS is Back also had the novelty of morning kickoffs to offset the steamy temperatures of the Orlando bubble. Nine of those morning matches, which had all aired on ESPN, fared poorly with viewers. The most those games ever garnered was an estimated 175,000 viewers. Nonetheless, innovations like the drone camera and ability to display ads, superimposed on the field and sidelines, provided a much-needed revenue boost for the league.
UEFA Champions League
The Champions League, meanwhile, restarted in early August, two months after it traditionally would have ended. To get the games in, the tournament opted for a single-elimination knockout starting with the quarterfinals. The removal of home-and-away legs, forced upon UEFA by the virus, turned into a World Cup-style eight-team mini-tournament to reduce travel. As a result, the remainder of the competition took place in Lisbon. What resulted was a ratings bonanza.
Univision drew their largest Champions League audience of the year starting with 967,000 viewers for the second leg of Barcelona’s win against Napoli in the round of 16. That number represented more than double the average of the other round of 16 games played before the pause. Univision’s TUDN also had the highest-rated Champions League final in five years with 2.05 million viewers, according to World Soccer Talk.
The final, won by Bayern Munich over Paris Saint-Germain, capped off a great month for the Spanish-language broadcaster. The quarterfinal clash between Bayern and Barcelona was another highlight of the past few weeks, drawing 1.36 million viewers.
CBS All Access, which carried the knockout round in English available on-demand, did not provide numbers since the streaming service is not nationally rated by Nielsen. CBS attained the rights to broadcast the Champions League after taking over for Turner Sports. With CBS not showing most of the tournament on its cable channels or broadcast network, audiences flocked to Univision since games aired over basic cable in most markets and widely available to audiences.
Bundesliga and the Premier League
The Premier League, traditionally the most popular domestic competition among US audiences, was also very successful. The Bundesliga started earlier, returning to play on May 16. Ratings for the Bundesliga, where Americans such as Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, and Weston McKennie played this past season, fared well since there was no competition from any other major sports league in late spring. For example, the league’s first game back, the hotly contested derby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, drew an audience of 365,000. That number represented the best rating ever for a German league telecast on Fox Sports 1. Those numbers got a boost from the 42,000 who watched the Spanish-language telecast on Fox Deportes.
The Bundesliga’s strong ratings carried over to the Premier League when it resumed in June. On NBC and NBC Sports, the league averaged an audience of 462,000 viewers per match, the highest average viewership since the 2015-16 season. The NBCSN weekday afternoon games following the restart averaged 315,000 viewers, up some 30% before the shutdown.
Sports ratings in the US are generally in decline, although the appetite by Americans for top-level European soccer has been strong. The abnormal schedule of MLS and other US-based leagues could be to blame for the ratings drop. The European game remained largely the same. There are viewing options galore on the horizon. The MLS season continues and will intensify as the playoff approach, while Europe’s top leagues return in just a few weeks after a condensed preseason.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Bayern Munich's tactics reset expectations in Europe and beyond
- FC Dallas and Nashville's unique situation
- MLS is Back: 5 things before the final
- MLS is Back already tells a story
Photo by Andrew Zwarych - MLS Communications