Ethiopian Taxi Drivers, Happy Irishmen and MLS’s Challenge
By Paul Kennedy |
If you are like me and have followed the international game for many years, you quickly become fast friends with complete strangers from abroad thanks to that international language: soccer.
A few years back, I was at the NSCAA coaches convention in Indianapolis and my glasses broke. The only place I could find that could replace my glasses with my prescription on short notice was 10 miles outside of town. I jumped into a taxi whose driver was Ethiopian, so the conversation immediately turned to Ethiopia’s participation in the African Nations Cup that was just starting. I impressed the driver with my knowledge of Ethiopian soccer — the national team happened to include an American, Fuad Ibrahim, a former U.S. U-17 from Minnesota — and I was quickly his best friend, so much so that he picked me 90 minutes later, after my new glasses were ready, and took me back to my convention hotel. He was a life-saver.
Fast forward to MLS Cup 2015. I needed a cab to get to a restaurant I wanted to check out in the German Village section of Columbus a couple of miles from the MLS hotel, and the driver was African. When I asked him where he was from, he said he was from Ethiopia and when he asked me if I was in town for the game, I figured we were in for a nice soccer conversation, if not about Ethiopia — it was eliminated by tiny Sao Tome & Principe in the first round of World Cup 2018 qualifying — at least the Crew.
“So you’re a sport writer?” he asked with a heavy accent. “Do you think Ohio State will make the top four?”
So much for that soccer conversation.
MLS Cup was like that, the juxtaposition of incredible passion and complete ignorance. Portland Timbers fans had every reason to show off their colors — they were the story of the final, an estimated 3,000 Portland fans who had gotten tickets to the final — and they were everywhere at Columbus airport the day after the game. Probably a quarter of my flight from Columbus to Chicago en route back to the West Coast consisted of Timbers fans.
As the green-clad Timbers fans passed by at our gate, a Columbus resident in her late 20s asked her husband, “What are all these Irish people doing here?” He had no idea, so I interjected, “They were here from Portland for MLS Cup this weekend.” She looked puzzled and asked, “Rugby?”
It’s that sort of response that makes you pause about how far we’ve come.
I thought of those two conversations, in the taxi and at the airport in Columbus, as I read Jonathan Tannenwald’s long conversation with ESPN senior vice president Scott Guglielmino, about the ratings for MLS Cup 2015 and soccer ratings in general.
Not surprisingly, the numbers for an MLS Cup between two small market teams — Portland and Columbus rank 24th and 31st nationally and 13th and 14th out of MLS’s 16 U.S. markets — were low.
ESPN drew 668,000 viewers, the second lowest audience for an MLS Cup on ESPN, ahead of only the 2013 Sporting Kansas City-Real Salt Lake final, which happened to be contested by the teams from MLS’s two smallest markets.
For MLS Cup 2015, UniMas drew 300,000 viewers, down 51 percent from last year’s Landon Donovan farewell game, and the UDN simulcast averaged 206,000, down 16 percent. On a positive note, the viewership on WatchESPN, 32,000, set a streaming audience record for an MLS match.
Those numbers underscore the challenge that MLS has in building a national television audience without a significant national following. MLS isn’t like the NFL or even to a certain extent the EPL, which has a following of fans who will watch whatever is on, even if they have no rooting interest in the outcome.
But MLS’s challenge goes deeper than that. For all the success clubs have had boosting average attendance to record levels and creating a great live experience for fans, they still need much greater local penetration, as two other TV numbers Tannenwald threw out demonstrate. MLS Cup drew local ratings of 7.4 in Portland and 5.1 Columbus, which means 7.4 percent of all Portland TV households and 5.1 of all Columbus TV households watched the game on the ESPN.
That’s not bad until you consider other sports. Forget about the NFL, where local ratings are off the charts. (For Week 12, 13 NFL TV markets had ratings of more than 30 for the game involving the local team.) Baseball is supposed to be a dying sport, but Kansas City averaged an estimated rating of 90 for Game 5 of the 2015 World Series between the Royals, who have albeit extraordinary support in the Midwest, and the New York Mets.
MLS does need to ever come close to achieving NFL-type numbers week in and week out, but ratings in the markets of the two MLS Cup finalists must be two or two times what they are now — and still a fraction of those for a Royals’ World Series — before we can say MLS has truly arrived.
And before we don’t get any more questioners wondering who are all those happy Irishmen wondering through Columbus Airport.