Why FOX’s World Cup TV Rights Deal is a Victory For the Premier League, Not MLS

FOX winning the TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments is, in a strange way, a victory for the Premier League. FOX Soccer has built its soccer empire on the success it has achieved with U.S. coverage of the Premier League. That strong foundation helped build FOX Soccer into what it is today, and two years ago helped them acquire the coverage of the UEFA Champions League.

Some soccer fans have been throwing their toys out of the pram as if the ‘FOX Acquires World Cup TV rights’ story is the end of the world. But the real pain point and the reason that many of them are defensive is because they’ve lost their security blanket. When ESPN paid $100 million for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, part of the deal was to also cover USMNT and MLS games. Now that ESPN has lost out to FOX, the sweet deal for MLS being lumped in with U.S. Soccer and the World Cup — thereby artificially inflating the value of MLS TV rights — is no more. Now that this MLS season has ended, FOX won’t be covering Major League Soccer. And MLS and U.S. Soccer is now out in the open, and will justly receive whatever TV rights dollar amount the market can bear.

When the current TV rights deal for Major League Soccer expires at the end of 2014, who will be interested in bidding for the rights if the carrot on the stick of World Cup coverage is no longer an incentive? FOX won’t be interested in bidding for MLS given the amount of money they’ve spent on TV rights for the World Cup plus the appalling TV ratings FOX Soccer received for its coverage of MLS. Will ESPN even be interested if there’s no World Cup TV coverage as an incentive to secure a MLS deal? So perhaps NBC and ESPN will bid against each other for the rights instead, or work out a shared deal? The bottom line is that the next two years are critical for Major League Soccer. The top division in the United States needs to produce impressive TV ratings on its own merits on both NBC and ESPN. It needs to prove that it deserves to earn as much as it can without being padded with coverage of the US men’s national team.

Not surprisingly, many MLS apologists are down on FOX Soccer even before FOX won the bid for the World Cup TV rights. They argue that FOX did a poor job of promoting America’s top league. While this is a fair argument, FOX has in the past 12 months significantly improved its presentation and coverage of the league, but TV ratings were still poor. Rather than blame the inferior quality of the MLS product on the field, MLS bloggers prefer to make FOX the scapegoat instead.

It’s time to stop hating on FOX Soccer. Instead it’s time to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they make the right decisions moving forward to improve their coverage. Many readers who rave about how incredible ESPN’s coverage is seem to forget how woeful the 2006 World Cup broadcast was by ESPN and ABC (and forget how many Monday 3pm games have been showing up on ESPN3.com instead of ESPN2 recently). In the span of four years, ESPN’s coverage went from laughable to simply stunning. FOX has seven years and a giant head start. The next few years will be interesting times indeed for soccer fans in the United States, and FOX needs to be congratulated for making a significant investment in the sport of soccer. Without them, the soccer viewing landscape in this country would look completely different.

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