Major League Soccer has a problem.
On the eve of its 20th season, America's latest incarnation of a fully professional soccer league has drawn a steep growth curve, overcoming towering obstacles and attaining viability heretofore unknown to stateside pro soccer.
Of late, attendance has trended upward, most all the teams have made real inroads in their home markets and just about the entire U.S. men's national team plays at home again. The number of clubs is growing, expansion fees have soared to $100 million and state-of-the-art stadiums have become the rule rather than the exception.
But that one finicky problem persists.
For as long as the league has been around, they have been a problem. Some progress has been made. The numbers have gone from sometimes microscopic – towards the end of 2008, when the old Fox Soccer Channel first began getting ratings, it averaged just 30,000 for the last four MLS games of the season – to mostly perceptible with the naked eye. But they remain intolerably low.
Last season, the league averaged 240,000 viewers per game on ESPN, 142,000 on NBC and NBCSN and 223,000 on Unimas. Over the last decade or so, no real progress has been made. ESPN's MLS national broadcast ratings have hovered between 220,000 and 311,000 in that time. And while NBC did a laudable job with its production values and posted numbers that doubled FOX Soccer Channel's best year ever – 70,000 – the numbers plainly aren't economically sustainable. That company, after all, decided not even to enter a bid when the MLS rights came up last spring even though it has a sports-specific channel to program.
Instead, FOX resumed the rights – for its newish FOX Sports 1 and 2 channels – in partnership with ESPN. Univision bought in as well to bring the total in annual rights fees to a reported $90 million through 2022. The old deals were apparently good for under $30 million per year, so MLS trumpeted the new broadcast contracts as a major achievement.
While it's a tad more than the $83.33 million NBC pays for the Premier League, it should be noted here that, as before, those MLS rights include the USMNT home games, which are much more popular than MLS. So it's still rather hard to say how much the league's rights are really worth. To an extent, the USMNT rights – where there might be some money to be made – were held hostage by MLS, a loss-leader, since you couldn't get the former without the latter, giving the league considerably more leverage.
Anyway, when it comes to the broadcast rights pie – the primary driver of revenue in any league – MLS isn't even getting a slice of it. It's getting crumbs. Or the residue on the cake knife.
The NFL receives over $5 billion a year and will do so through 2021. The NBA follows with $2.66 billion until 2025. Major League Baseball gets $1.5 billion from now to the end of 2021 (not counting the immensely valuable local broadcast rights), and the NHL collects $200 million through 2021.
The discrepancy lays entirely in the ratings – the only truth in the television game. There's no sense comparing MLS to the NFL juggernaut, which regularly draws 20 million viewers a game. That's the NFL, after all, probably the most popular television product in American history. But even the NHL, which lags well behind the NBA and Major League Baseball in its ratings – both of whom had disappointing seasons from a TV standpoint last year, yet still drew well over a million viewers for every game – averaged more than half a million pairs of eyeballs for its regular season and 1.44 million for its playoffs, numbers MLS can only dream of right now.
But it isn’t merely the competition from other sports that’s eating into the league’s market share. It’s soccer itself.
A simple cable package in the U.S. brings a wealth of top-tier soccer. NBC has the Premier League. FOX has the Champions League and, soon, the World Cup for both men and women. A raft of channels from south of the border will offer up Mexican soccer. Get yourself BeIN Sports, which is slightly trickier, and Spanish, Italian and French soccer will be yours. And find Gol TV, if you can, and you can add South American and German soccer (although the latter will move to FOX next season). When BeIN finds greater distribution, which seems a matter of time, every major league in the world will be easily accessible.
This is Major League Soccer's real competition. Unless you are deeply invested in your local MLS team, why should you watch it on TV when you can see some of the world's biggest clubs do battle in the Old Country's historic leagues? The small hardcore MLS crowd will call you a Eurosnob for taking this view, but from a consumer perspective, it makes incontestable sense.
It's unsurprising that MLS's real and impressive gains in physical attendance are so out of sync with their ratings. For the live, in-game soccer experience, the league has virtually no competition. There are no Premier League teams within driving distance from your house. It's just that it takes as many clicks on your remote to beam in a game from Liverpool as it does from Los Angeles.
Those other American leagues – the ones with the much better ratings – don't have to compete with rivals from overseas; only each other. Rare is the basketball fan who would rather watch the Spanish basketball league than the NBA. And it's only the most obstinate contrarians and next-level hipsters who prefer South Korean pro baseball or Russian hockey to Major League Baseball and the NHL. College football and college basketball, meanwhile, are largely complementary to the professional ranks by being scheduled in separate TV slots.
MLS doesn't have those luxuries. Even the time difference with Europe seems to put MLS at a disadvantage. A small but vibrant culture has developed around the budding tradition of watching the Premier League et al on weekend mornings. Not only is it an uncluttered timeslot on your TV guide, but it's also convenient.
This all rather complicates life for MLS. Without a more equitable cut of the action, it's hard to invest big in players. Raising the playing level is probably the only real way to compete with Europe for American soccer viewers. (The interest is there: NBC draws some half a million viewers to its Premier League games while FOX sometimes gets a million for the biggest Champions League matches.) Because as we've seen over the last 19 seasons, star power alone, rented from the big names brought over throughout the years, doesn't get people to turn on their TVs consistently or sustainably.
And so we come to MLS's ongoing negotiations with its players union over a new collective bargaining agreement. With a salary cap more befitting of an independent insurance company in a small Midwest town than a professional sports team – it was $3.1 million in 2014, not counting three designated players' salaries over $387,500 – MLS is getting more or less what it's paying for on the field. That is to say, a product that can't compete with the zippy glitter on show in Europe.
MLS, naturally, is pleading poor in these negotiations. The trouble is that in soccer's unconstrained international player market, you get what you pay for and even the casual TV viewer can tell the difference. The league's frugal philosophy, in other words, could be costing it.
After 19 years, it might be worthwhile to try something different and put real money towards the playing product. For MLS, it could pay off big.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.