Philadelphia Union beaten by Barcelona in national television ratings

ESPN's soccer audience was well more than twice that of NBC Sports Network's. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)

Here's an interesting measuring stick with which to gauge the national resonance of Major League Soccer.

MLS has grown in a lot of ways in recent years, from in-stadium attendances to recognition across social media. But the league's television ratings have not changed much over time. They have grown a little bit, but in general they remain pretty small.

The problem was made clear last November, when the MLS Cup Final on ESPN was watched by fewer people than a tape-delayed English Premier League game on the Fox network. That caused a lot of consternation in the American soccer community, especially among people who try to convert fans of European leagues to MLS.

You can argue that it wasn't entirely fair to measure a cable audience against a network television audience. It's also of consequence that the Sunday night NFL that was on at the same time as the MLS Cup Final was Eagles at Giants, which took away two of the nation's biggest TV markets.

This past weekend presented MLS with a fairer test.

The only MLS game of the weekend that was televised nationally in English was the Union's game against the Columbus Crew on NBC Sports Network. At almost exactly the same time, ESPN was broadcasting a Spanish league game between powerhouse Barcelona and Levante.

Obviously, Barcelona is a big deal. But the Spanish league in general does not attract the same amount of attention in the United States as the English Premier League, or even the Mexican league.

Tuesday afternoon, NBC Sports Network and ESPN published the ratings numbers for their respective broadcasts. The head-to-head battle resulted in a clear loss for MLS.

The Union-Crew broadcast, which ran from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern, drew an average of 126,000 viewers. During the game itself, the average viewership was 139,000.

The Barcelona-Levante broadcast, which ran from 3:55 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., drew 296,000 viewers on ESPN and 489,000 viewers on ESPN Deportes.

ESPN's soccer audience was well more than twice that of NBC Sports Network's. And if you combine the two ESPN networks' audiences, you end up with 785,000 people who were watching soccer other than MLS at that hour. Factor in anyone who was watching Fox Soccer, GolTV or any of the Spanish-language networks, and that number only grows.

MLS also hurt its own cause by having three other games take place during Philadelphia-Columbus. New England-D.C. and Seattle-Colorado kicked off at 4:00 p.m., and Toronto-Chivas USA kicked off at 4:30 p.m.

Obviously, any league can have scheduling conflicts that lead to a scenario like this. But to have three games going at the same time as a national television broadcast seems to me to be a bit much.

Furthermore, Seattle is the league's strongest television market, and New England and D.C. are both conference rivals of the Union and Crew. Those are significant groups of viewers that would almost surely have been watching their own teams' games.

We'll never know whether the combined fan bases of the five American teams that played Saturday afternoon would have made up the difference. But it's hard to imagine that it wouldn't have had any impact.

If there's any lesson MLS can take from Saturday's ratings, it's to not have other games at the same time as national TV broadcasts. I'm sure no one has to tell the people at MLS headquarters that, but it's still worth saying.

Through six games this year, NBC Sports Network's MLS broadcasts have drawn an average of 56 percent more viewers than Fox Soccer Channel's MLS broadcasts did. That's a significant increase, and it justifies MLS going for NBC's greater exposure over Fox's greater rights fee.

But Saturday's numbers show just how much farther MLS has to grow in order to really attract all the soccer fans in the country.

The next big ratings test for MLS will come May 5, with two national TV games involving big markets and star-laden teams. Seattle hosts Philadelphia at 4:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, and Los Angeles hosts New York at 8:00 p.m. on ESPN.

Once again, though, there will be other games going on at the same time. Toronto hosts D.C. at 4:30 p.m., Vancouver hosts San Jose at 7:00, Real Salt Lake hosts New England at 8:00 and Kansas City hosts Montréal at 8:30.

We'll see what the numbers are that day, and we'll see if MLS does a better job of avoiding conflicts with its national TV broadcasts in future years. It will likely always be hard to fight the giants of England and Spain. But as MLS and its fans know well, the self-inflicted wounds are often those that hurt the most.