This is why Fox and Telemundo's deal for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup broadcasts topped $1 billion while ESPN and Fox paid only $600 million for the combined rights to Major League Soccer and U.S. men's national team matches through 2022. The U.S. is increasingly taking to soccer, but not MLS' brand of it.
Though Portland's Providence Park draws more than 20,000 fans per match and the Portland Timbers' supporters group, the Timbers Army, fills the building with chants, smoke and giant tifo displays, enthusiasm for MLS just hasn't spread far beyond stadium walls. Consider, for example, that last year's MLS playoffs averaged just 320,000 viewers per match. A playoff game between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake during the Timbers' first-ever MLS playoff run drew fewer viewers than a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond on TBS.
Meanwhile, European leagues such as the English Premier League continue to grow in popularity. NBC paid $250 million for just three seasons of EPL coverage last year, but has seen audiences for Saturday morning matches reach an average of 438,000 viewers. That's up from 220,000 on Fox and ESPN in 2012 and includes 1.2 million for a Cardiff-Swansea match, 1.1 million for a tilt between Swansea and Manchester United and 1 million for Man U-Crystal Palace matchup. In total, 4.9 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the last day of EPL matches and averaged 1.8 million per match, up from 869,000 last year.
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England's FA Cup final featuring an Arsenal win against Hull City drew an average of 880,000 viewers for Fox this year, with the audience peaking at 1 million viewers at one point. That's a 13% improvement over the past year and more than double the viewership of the 2013 MLS All-Star Game. The UEFA Champions league puts up even bigger numbers. Spanish La Liga club Atletico Madrid’s 3-1 elimination of English Premier League giants Chelsea in April attracted 627,000 viewers to Fox Sports 1. The ensuing 4-0 thrashing of Bayern Munich -- which won the event in 2014 -- by Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid picked up 557,000 viewers.
Either match makes the MLS All-Star Game look puny by comparison, but the 3.1 million who tuned in to Fox and Fox Deportes in May to watch Real Madrid win the whole thing was World Cup big. The only bigger Champions League draw during Fox's five-year stint as host was the 4.2 million who watched Barcelona and Manchester United in 2011.
That's led ESPN to buy up the rights to Mexico's Liga MX matches and spurred Fox to grab the rights to Bayern Munich's Bundesliga starting next year. It's not that the U.S. is against watching homegrown soccer, mind you: It's just that it prefers to flock to watch its national team go up against the world's best, as it did when 7.5 million viewers watched Fox's coverage of the U.S. CONCACAF Gold Cup win over Panama last year.