Today’s announcement that US Soccer and MLS have signed an eight-year TV rights deal worth $90 million a year with FOX Sports, ESPN and Univision is a major boost for MLS, which will help the league finance its growth and raise the level of competitiveness among America’s top flight division. However, a dose of reality is needed to cut through the hype. The real reason why ESPN and FOX is spending so much money is because they want the TV rights to USMNT and USWNT, not MLS.
Yes, while acquiring TV rights to MLS is good for the sport and the growth of the game in the United States, the reality is that MLS as a TV product, by itself, is a loss leader. While TV viewing audiences have more than doubled to 214,000 viewers per game on NBC Sports compared to last year, TV networks such as FOX Sports and ESPN have to pay for MLS TV rights in order to get rights to broadcast USMNT and USWNT games.
The fact that US Soccer and MLS decided to combine the rights packages together several years ago was a smart decision. US Soccer needs MLS to be successful, to fuel the USMNT system with American players. And vice-versa, MLS needs USMNT to be successful to win new fans that will hopefully attend local MLS games and watch the league on television.
There’s no denying that the $720million deal that US Soccer and MLS has signed will be a tremendous boost to soccer across the United States over the next eight years. As a result, the USSF and MLS should be congratulated for securing such a lucrative deal. But the news needs to be tempered by reality, notably:
1. FOX Sports has a poor track record of broadcasting MLS games. When FOX Soccer shared the rights with ESPN for MLS, FOX’s coverage of the league was a poor reflection of the US’s domestic league.
2. There are no guarantees that MLS games on FOX Sports will be televised on FOX Sports 1. FOX Sports 2 could house many MLS games. The network has provided dismal ratings for sports. Plus, FOX Sports 2 isn’t available to most viewers in HD, and is currently in SD in most households (if available at all).
3. MLS TV ratings continue to disappoint. While MLS TV ratings have an opportunity to increase given games that will be shown on ESPN, FOX and Univision, the league has an enormous mountain to climb to compete with the average of 440,000 viewers per Premier League game on NBC.
Remember that the TV ratings for MLS’s most prominent game of the year, the MLS Cup, have continued to decline. The TV ratings for the 2013 MLS Cup were 44% worse than the previous year, and the game was the least-viewed MLS Cup game ever.
The $90million per year deal will help boost TV ratings. But it needs to be taken into context that the $90million deal is for USMNT and MLS compared to NBC’s $83million per year deal just for the Premier League.
4. NBC has done an incredible job of broadcasting MLS, but will no longer be involved in coverage from 2015-2022. The one US sports network that has raised the bar on its coverage of MLS will not broadcast the US’s domestic league for the next 8 years. While ESPN has done a decent job of televising MLS since the league was founded, FOX remains a risky proposition given its current coverage that’s out of touch with soccer fans in the United States, as well as its poor track record when dealing with MLS.
5. MLS faces the challenge of finding timeslots that will work. While the decision to schedule regular starting times/days each week is a wise one, MLS faces the challenge of trying to make Friday nights and Sunday’s at 5pm and 7pm ET work against traditional American sports. Friday nights are typically poor nights to broadcast sports. It’s typically not a busy night for sports, which could end up turning into being a success for MLS. But the Sunday timeslots will face competition against NFL and other leagues depending on the time of the year.
While there are concerns (as listed above), MLS is making smart moves by designating regular nights for games so soccer fans can get used to watching the league at the same time each week. Plus, the digital rights deal where more games will be online for soccer fans to watch MLS games is a correct decision. And FOX and ESPN working together to do ESPN double-headers will move the needle.
Having said that, though, MLS TV ratings have been poor. And while today’s announcement is a giant step forward in the right direction, the league, FOX Sports, ESPN and Univision have an incredible amount of hard work ahead of them if they want to boost MLS TV ratings and to convince the soccer-watching public in the United States to watch MLS.
While FOX Sports and ESPN would be thrilled if MLS sees a boost in TV ratings over the next 7 days, we need to remember that the USMNT is the main reason why these networks are spending so much money. Ultimately, the USMNT is America’s soccer team. It’s the one that brings together soccer fans from all walks of life and fans of different leagues and teams. While MLS will undoubtedly grab many of today’s headlines, MLS owes a lot of its success (and today’s lucrative deal) to US Soccer.