Journalist John Ourand, who writes for sports media industry publication Sports Business Daily, predicts that the upcoming rights deal for Major League Soccer will see Google come out as the winner, picking up a portion of the US media rights to MLS and USMNT games.
The current deal between ESPN and MLS, which was agreed in 2006, and expires in 2014, was packaged together with rights to home USMNT games. ESPN is currently paying less than $9 million a year for the rights, while NBC are paying $10 million a year to show MLS games. Both ESPN and NBC have seen a decline in TV viewing numbers for MLS games (plus the 2013 MLS Cup was the least viewed final in the league’s 17-year history), so it’s not surprising that MLS is trying to shake things up to gain a competitive advantage Stateside against many of the top soccer leagues from around the world that are more accessible and shown more often on TV and Internet than domestic games.
Negotiations for the MLS/USMNT rights deal began in October, and the winning bidder is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Sports Business Daily predicts that Google will create a subscription sports package:
“Before Google can make a splash with a big rights deal, it has to show that YouTube can handle a subscription package — and 2014 will be the year. Look for the company to set something up around U.S. and international soccer, potentially positioning the company as a player for rights in the next decade.”
YouTube already has the technology to utilize subscription packages, and MLS would be an excellent opportunity to allow Google/YouTube to dip its toe in the water to see if it can convince soccer fans to subscribe to MLS games on a game-by-game or season-package basis.
Whether Ourand has inside information regarding his prediction, we’ll have to wait and see. But he seems quite confident in his analysis, and allowing Google/YouTube an opportunity to stream matches as part of a paid subscription makes sense for both the league and technology company.
Two issues remain regarding a paid subscription to MLS on YouTube, however. First, offering select games on the Internet will shut out those soccer fans who either may not have computers or reliable Internet access. While that percentage is becoming smaller as each year passes, it’s still an issue to consider. And second, there remains the elephant in the room, which is illegal streaming of games that is a practice that is becoming more accepted and utilized. If MLS and Google offer a superb online package that is affordable and reliable, this will go a short way to encouraging people to pay for a package. But there will always be a significant portion of people who will watch illegal streams, and that will ultimately hurt the bottom line numbers for both MLS and Google.