Interest in soccer may be growing inside the United States, but it has a long way to go before rivaling college football when it comes to television ratings. Take Saturday for example…
"So, how about that MLS Championship Game?" Said no one, at this particular moment
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 8, 2013
According to our friends at Awful Announcing, this year's MLS Cup drew an average audience of 505,000, or about 223,000 below the lowest rated championship match since 2010. Perhaps interesting to note, the Spanish broadcast received a better television rating than the ESPN broadcast in English, with 514,000 tuning in to Uni Mas. Combined coverage for the MLS Cup netted an estimated total of 1,019,000 viewers. You can fill that number with just over nine sellouts at Michigan Stadium.
For comparison's sake, the SEC Championship Game, between Auburn and Missouri and airing at the same time on CBS, received the highest rating for a college football game all season (a tie with Alabama-Texas A&M) with an estimated 14.4 million viewers. That is roughly 28.8 times as many people tuning in to watch the SEC championship game than those who were tuned in to the MLS Cup. Just one week earlier a total of 13.8 million tuned in for the Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama.
A couple of things come in to play here. First, the SEC Championship Game was on network TV while the MLS Cup was on ESPN. When it comes to sports on TV, networks have an extreme advantage compared to the cable networks. Always have, always will. Second, football will always trump soccer in this country. Always has, always will. Third, there may have been a few fans conflicted with their rooting interests in the area. Would a Missouri fan who roots for Sporting Kansas City tune in to the MLS Cup over watching his team make a run at the SEC title? Granted, this may have been a conflict of interest for about 14 people, but the dilemma is still there to some degree. Like when the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup Finals and on the same night as game one Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay went out and pitched a perfect game. As a Philly sports fan, my viewing attention was split between history and a long-awaited Stanley Cup game. OK, maybe this is different, but you get the idea. If you have been lucky enough as a sports fan, you have experienced this situation to some degree at some point in your life. If not, I'm sorry you live in Cleveland.
I am not a huge soccer guy, but I do have an appreciation for the sport. Based on my limited knowledge of the game, interest in the MLS should not be used as the litmus test for soccer interest in this country. It seems to me there is a stronger following for the European offerings such as the Premier League. Fortunately for a section of crossover fans, they can enjoy some European club action at times that generally do not conflict with their college football habits. Unfortunately, the MLS has not caught on to that strategy, and it may have helped to contribute to their ratings disaster in their championship match last Saturday. And this is not a slam on MLS. Nothing can hold a light to the ratings the NFL or top level college football can offer. This just puts that in to perspective.
Memo to the MLS and other sports (excluding the almighty NFL), don't mess with college football. If you do, just make sure you don't go up against the SEC. Like so many can tell you, you will lose just about every time.