Looking at the NHL & MLS

For sports fans, May is a great time of year.  Baseball is in full swing, the NBA playoffs are slowly moving forward, the MLS season is shaking out and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are bringing night after night of heart stopping excitement.  A bit of a personal statement here; I am not a hockey fan.  When the Hartford Whalers left town more than a decade ago, I swore off pucks forever.  However, when the NHL playoff season starts, I find a close game to be riveting television, despite having no rooting interest and very limited knowledge of the players on the ice.

Over the last few years, many soccer fans have opined that the beautiful game is overtaking hockey as the “4th” American professional sport.  Yet the recent NHL/NBC/Versus television deal belies that belief.  ESPN pays $8.5 million annually for MLS rights, yet that deal is part of a larger SUM/ABC/ESPN package that includes USMNT games and FIFA World Cup.  In contrast, the NHL recently announced its new deal which upped its annual fee from $77.5 million per year to over $185 million per season.  The deal includes games on Versus and NBC and requires the national telecast of every playoff game.  The difference between the deals is shocking and shows the gulf MLS still has to cross to reach the Big 4.

What makes the difference between the deals even more difficult for soccer fans to stomach is the relative similarity of the regular season television ratings garnered by each sport.  Prime time games on Versus averaged 353,000 viewers this year. MLS ratings have been pretty consistently around 250,000 per match, with some games reaching numbers at or above the NHL telecasts.  Despite these relative similarities, and the fact that local MLS broadcasts often outdraw local NHL broadcasts in the same market, MLS isn’t close in the all important tv revenue department.

MLS was trying to get $20 million per year from FSC for 2011 and the deal fell woefully short.  The ESPN deal runs through 2014, but ratings are flat.  MLS’ national profile has dramatically increased and the league is moving forwards in leaps and bounds, but claims that hockey has fallen behind are grossly overstated.

9 Responses

  1. Seattle feels your pain. Since the Sonics were stolen, I haven’t even come close to watching a full NBA game. I don’t have a second team, and the only games I do watch part of are when Sonicsgate (The group that increases awareness about the Sonics and made a wonderful documentary about the thievery) are demonstrating.

    By the way, I read an article on Bleacher Report some time ago, written by a guy who felt Hartford would be a great place to add an MLS franchise in the future. I think a Boston-Montreal-Hartford relationship could be kind of fun. What do you think?

  2. It’s all about who’s growing.

  3. As I understand the NHL numbers (before the current increase), NBC did not pay anything for the Sunday broadcast rights and Versus covered up the rest. And the same viewership is acceptable, or unacceptable, depending on the network. Thus, NBC would not pay for an NHL game, but Versus relies on the NHL for legitimacy and to drive attention to its network.

    For MLS, ESPN may not be satisified with NHL-level viewership, which explains why ESPN no longer offers hockey. Thus, the current discrepancy comes down to who is paying and why.

    And my response to ESPN: low ratings reflect a lack of effort and foresight on the network’s part. Hockey has been around for a century and growth is limited. The MLS is young and growing. And American’s can support a world-class league which ESPN should know since they pay for EPL and UEFA Champion’s League games. There is money to be made if the network can bring itself to cut some world’s strongest man reruns or cheerleading competitions.

  4. I would love to see Hartford add an MLS franchise, but I don’t think the area could support it. First, the only stadium option is the “Rent” and it is too big for soccer with over 40k seats. Second, I don’t see the fan base turning out. When the Revs play Open Cup games in the area, we get 2-3k max down here.

  5. in chicago the hawks own this town and the fire dont really even register. it is sad

  6. I, too, know how you feel. I was a huge New England Whalers fan until they moved away from Boston to Hartford.

  7. The Whale moving killed a very serious hockey love affair for me. The irony is that my long simmering love for soccer bloomed after that.

  8. Neilsen ratings are a joke. I know a lot more hockey fans than soccer fans and I don’t know one person who watches or supports an MLS team. If you wan’t proof that no one cares about the MLS then look at espn’s front page. I see the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, and NCAA but no MLS. LOL!

  9. @Adam: If it were a popularity contest, the EPL at the very least would be on the front page. Since soccer is popular all over the world, they chose instead to put it all under one tab. Because chances are whoever goes to ESPN to check out soccer is looking for their local league.

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