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5 Concerns About the US Soccer and MLS 8-Year TV Rights Deal

mls press conference 5 Concerns About the US Soccer and MLS 8 Year TV Rights Deal

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.

About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
View all posts by Christopher Harris →

25 Responses to 5 Concerns About the US Soccer and MLS 8-Year TV Rights Deal

  1. goatslookshifty says:

    Typical eurosnob article ;)

  2. Dizz says:

    Any idea what the actual split in money is for MLS and US National teams?

  3. Scott says:

    Fox Sports 2 is available in HD. It’s just that few outlets offer it at this time. I have DirecTV, and it’s available in HD there.

  4. Total Relegation @totalrelegation says:

    The bulk of the TV deal $ is going to US Soccer not MLS. There is no way ESPN/FOX are going to spend 9x annually what NBC is currently spending. My guess MLS is getting about $12-15M a year and US Soccer is getting the rest.

    • Jeff says:

      IIRC, NBC/ESPN/Univision are each paying around $10mil each year for the MLS rights in the current contract. Assuming there’s a 10% – 15% increase, it’s almost fairly even the share between the MLS & US National broadcast fees.

    • Tim says:

      Prove it. Wait you cant….

    • Visitor says:

      Publicly open documents from USSF show that they roughly get 20% of that money. “Bulk” it is not.

      Try again with your disparaging attempts against MLS.

  5. CTBlues says:

    One thing that I really like about this deal is no more Sunday night or week night west coast games on at 11pm EST except for CCL matches.

  6. francis says:

    Gus Johnson will have something to do in the Summer months

  7. Dean Stell says:

    It’s a decent deal for them given the ratings. I’m sure US Soccer is getting a large chunk of the money because they have a product that viewers watch.

    I do genuinely feel sorry for MLS. It’s just hard to launch a nationally relevant league when there is so much global competition.

    • Visitor says:

      ” I’m sure US Soccer is chunk of the money because they have a product that viewers watch.”
      False. Go look at USSF’s financials.

  8. roger says:

    It’s a combined deal. USMNT wants and needs MLS to grow. How come nobody’s projecting the salary cap. I’d like tosee it jump up 5x as well to 15mil.

  9. nickp91 says:

    that MLS coverage on ESPN and Fox will go head to head with NFL coverage for the final 8 weeks of each MLS season

  10. Visitor says:

    ESPN/Fox are paying more per match than NBC does for exclusively holding EPL rights per match. And NBC was paying nearly equal for each EPL/MLS match beforehand. NBC also doesn’t have to do squat for getting the TV cameras and feed from England whereas NBC uses the local affiliate’s resources to broadcast MLS games nationally. Therefore one looks amazing because they’ve got people in England who know how to use the cameras for the game and also use about 2x the number of cameras you’ll find for an MLS nationally broadcasted match (local is nearly 1/4 in number). Basically EPL is the NFL of soccer in TV presentation. It shows.

    So, if MLS can get NFL-type presentation the perception of inferior product will slowly diminish.

    I sauntered over here and found your commentary to be typically short-sited when it comes to MLS.

  11. cpcva says:

    I dont have cable I suppose there will be no ota coverage

  12. Andy says:

    If you look at US Soccer’s Financial report, you will see that they keep roughly 20% of the current TV deal with 80% going to MLS.

    I don’t think people understand just how little content US Soccer is in the deal compared to the MLS content.

    Over the entire 8 years, there will be 16 total home qualifiers. Then there will be an average of ~6 friendlies per year.

    The contract does not include away qualifiers, it does not include the Gold Cup or the Copa America.

    The new deals break down will likely be a similar 80-20 break towards MLS which is whom carries all of the content portion of the deal amounting to 125 games per season.

    In yesterdays press conference announcing the deal with the big wigs from Fox, ESPN, Univision, US Soccer and MLS all present, 95% of the press conference was based on MLS, since it was obviously carrying the majority of the deal.

  13. goisles01 says:

    There is still fox soccer plus for matches. they don’t need fox sports 1 or 2

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