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MLS experiences TV ratings boost for 2015 opening weekend

MLS enjoyed a welcome boost in TV ratings from its opening weekend, with Orlando City vs. New York City FC setting a record in the Orlando-Daytona market for an MLS game.

Plenty has been written about Major League Soccer's television ratings, and among the common words in such pieces are “problem” and “challenged” and “low.” Last year the combined ESPN/ESPN2 broadcasts averaged 240,000 per game and 142,000 on NBCSN. The numbers on UniMas were 223,000 viewers. When compared to other niche sports in the United States, these are not good television numbers.

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But MLS executives should be buoyed by what occurred on opening weekend of the 2015 campaign. The numbers were terrific, especially Sunday's broadcast for the MLS debut of Orlando City SC and New York City FC, which occurred in ESPN's new weekly 5 p.m. ET Sunday time slot. The game drew a whopping (for MLS) 539,000 viewers and the Orlando-Daytona market drew 3.4 local rating, the best figure ever for an MLS game in the market (regular season or playoffs).

The Spanish-language ratings were also terrific. Last Friday’s season opener between the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire, which aired on UniMas and UDN concurrently and was the first time an MLS season began exclusively on Hispanic television, averaged 341,000 total viewers.

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Univision said it out-performed the 2014 MLS season opener (Sporting Kansas City vs. Seattle Sounders) on NBCSN among total viewers by 3%, and the match ranks as the most-viewed MLS match among non-Hispanics ever on a Spanish-Language network. (As for a demo breakdown–and this was interesting–Univision said non-Hispanics made up 30% of the adults 18-49 and 26% of the total viewers.) An NBC PR rep said the Sporting KC-Seattle match averaged 330,000 viewers.

Fox Sports, which began its partnership with MLS this year, had to be pleased with its results as well. The network’s late game (Seattle-New England) drew 289,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1 while the game that preceded it (Sporting KC-New York Red Bulls) averaged 278,500 viewers. Those numbers basically doubled last year’s average on NBCSN.

What remains to be seen is whether the numbers boost is a product of opening-weekend buzz and select matchups (an inaugural game for two expansion franchises featuring World Cup-winning players Kaká and David Villa, for example), or whether the league's new appointment viewing slate for UniMas, ESPN/ESPN2 and Fox Sports makes a dent in a notorious needs-improvement area for the league.