PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Major League Soccer is hosting an All-Star Game filled with World Cup talent in one of the most raucous venues in North America with help from sponsors who rarely see big-league action.
Of course nobody's going to watch it.
Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game in Portland should be riding a wave of World Cup momentum that saw an average of 18 million people watch U.S. national team matches and a record 29 million watch the final between Germany and Argentina. MLS is sending seven members of that U.S. men's team to the All-Star Game, including U.S. captain and Seattle Sounders standout Clint Dempsey, while the MLS All-Stars' opponent -- Germany's Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich -- includes seven members of German's World Cup championship squad and young U.S. men's team forward Julian Green.
The World Cup drew enough viewers this year to give U.S. audiences at least some knowledge of U.S.-based MLS stars including Michael Bradley (of FC Toronto), Kyle Beckerman (the one with the dreadlocks, Real Salt Lake) and Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City). They may even recognize the names of German stars on Bayern Munich including Manuel Neuer, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Mueller, Phillip Lahm, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Jerome Boateng -- if not Netherlands striker Arjen Robben.
What they certainly won't do is watch. While ESPN and Univision pulled in between 3 million and 4 million viewers per match apiece for much of the World Cup, regular-season MLS matches averaged 220,000 viewers on ESPN and about half that on NBC Sports Network. By comparison, the WNBA drew about 230,000 viewers for each of its games.
Bringing in the international superstars doesn't tend to help all that much, especially with ESPN burying the MLS All-Star game on ESPN2. The league drew just 319,000 to that network when its stars played Italian Serie A club AS Roma during All-Star game last year. Even that was down 530,000 from their All-Star matchup against Chelsea in 2012.
By comparison, the NBA All-Star Game was shown on Time Warner's TNT this year and still brought in 7.5 million. Fox drew 11 million viewers last month for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. That event has lost so much of its luster that half of its audience has disappeared in the past 20 years.
Those events still lag behind the National Football League's Pro Bowl, which drew roughly 11.7 million viewers to NBC this year despite playing an off-brand version of the sport that eliminated kickoffs, sped up the play clock and added two-minute warnings to the first and third quarters.
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.
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.
The MLS All-Stars have a lot of U.S. World Cup talent in their ranks -- including national team veteran and 2014 snub Landon Donovan -- but they're also bolstered by internationals such as Australian World Cup team member Tim Cahill of the New York/New Jersey Red Bulls and former greats including the Red Bulls Thierry Henry and the Los Angeles Galaxy's Robbie Keane. Their core of followers, meanwhile is one of the youngest in professional sports. Roughly 40% of MLS' viewership is age 34 or younger, compared with the 50% of baseball's audience that is 55 or older. Though they aren't watching now -- and may have a hard time watching this year since the All-Star Game starts at 9:30 p.m. on the East Coast -- the portion of that audience that's under 17 is more likely to watch an MLS (17%) or Premier League (11%) match than they are to watch baseball's playoffs (4.7%).
That combined youth and potential draws a lot of unlikely sponsors into the mix. The NFL and Major League Baseball have locked up official sponsorships with General Motors, but MLS was able to capitalize on some All-Star synergy and get Volkswagen to sponsor its All-Star match against a high-profile German squad. While MLS includes Anheuser-Busch InBev as a beer sponsor just as baseball and football do, each of its teams is allowed a local beer sponsor as well. In the All-Star Game's case, the host Portland Timbers typically hang a banner for the Craft Brew Alliance's German-influenced Widmer Brothers inside Providence Park and feature their Green and Gold Kolsch on tap.
The MLS All-Star Game has tremendous potential for networks and sponsors alike. For now, it just doesn't have the television viewership to back it up. The league has enough talent to put together a decent all-star squad and enough pull to keep bringing big squads such as Bayern Munich and Chelsea in to play in its all-star event, but it has yet to produce an all-star league. It can field and produce individuals who can play on a higher level globally, but MLS itself is still more or less equivalent to the second tier of the English Premier league or to a secondary European league such as the Dutch Eredivisie.
U.S. soccer and interest in it is growing exponentially, but MLS represents the ceiling for that growth. When the MLS becomes as watchable as European leagues or even U.S. national team games, it may aspire to viewership numbers on par with those events. Until then, the league and its underexposed sponsors continue to invest in the best All-Star Game that the overwhelming majority of U.S. viewers outright refuses to watch.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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