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.