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Time for MLS and ESPN to Make Changes Together

In early August of 2006, it was announced that ESPN had paid for the rights to broadcast MLS.  At the announcement, officials from both sides agreed that ESPN would brand MLS with all the glory that its broadcasting style conveys to U.S. sports fans.   But, another MLS season has come and gone and except for the soccer purists, it has passed without much fanfare once again. 

There are 6 seasons left on the contract with ESPN.  These next 6 seasons, ending in 2014, should be the indicator for success or failure.  ESPN will not renew the contract if it is a failing product. 

ESPN is the giant in sports broadcasting and will not go forward with MLS unless the future is solid.  The one caveat to add to what happens in 2014 would be if ESPN makes a bid to buy a majority stake in MLS (as it did with Arena Football, though it was a minority stake).  This would only happen if ESPN spotted an opportunity in which they felt that they could take the sport farther along on their own without MLS executives calling the shots.  It then becomes a situation where ESPN feels they know the sporting public’s interests better than MLS.

MLS must look deeper into itself if it wants to gain the respect of mainstream U.S. sports fans.  MLS executives and those with deep ties to MLS like to put a happy face on for the public when it comes to talking about the growth of the sport in the U.S., but it is hard to tell what is the true status of the sport.

There are obvious positive things to say when comparing the sport to what it was 13 years ago before its inaugural season.  There are soccer-specific stadiums.  Soccer is seen much more on television.  There are more fans of soccer now in the U.S. and there are more franchises on the MLS waiting list.  

But, how much more time does the league need before it will make a major impact on the U.S. sports landscape? And, how will this economical recession the U.S. is in effect the league’s progress? 

With the stock market the way it is now, it is hard to trust what anyone has to say about financials.  It seems that 2 accountants could look at the MLS books and come up with 2 different outlooks.  So, what is the truth about the financials of MLS?  How many years can MLS afford to languish as a cellar dweller with U.S. sports fans, yet have its franchises worth 40 million some odd dollars? 

The most important relationship for MLS to cultivate is the one with ESPN.  The relationship does not appear to be as strong as it should be.  The relationship needs work.  MLS should be listening more to ESPN’s feedback. 

ESPN bought into the relationship to broaden soccer’s appeal nationwide and make money for its network.  It has done this for nearly every sport that it has acquired broadcasting rights.

Is MLS about making money or about gaining respect around the world?  

Is MLS making a profit at this point?  It probably would depend on which accountant you believe.