As I walked among supporters group members before the Orlando City against Portland game, which was televised live on FOX Sports 1 last weekend, I was quite surprised. From speaking with fans, I learned many had opted to watch the previous night’s North American Soccer League (NASL) matchup between Fort Lauderdale and Miami on beIN SPORTS instead of paying any attention to MLS games going on at the very same time. It made me think what might be happening because MLS has vacated Saturday night national broadcasts. Instead, MLS continues to charge a premium for fans to watch games not nationally televised by only offering MLS Live.
The NASL, despite being an officially sanctioned second division by the US Soccer Federation (USSF), created quite a splash less than two weeks ago by securing national TV deals with CBS Sports Network and beIN SPORTS. The respective packages give the league, which aspires to challenge Major League Soccer (MLS), exposure to American soccer fans and casual sports that no other “minor” league gets in the United States. At the same time, the third-division USL has made their product more accessible than ever with live YouTube streams of every game, which means the type of buffering and camera issues we once saw from clubs at that level are now no more. In contrast, MLS charges $79.99 a year for access to its MLS Live package, which gives fans access to streams and telecasts of out-of-market and non-national TV games (see our review of MLS Live).
This TV/streaming competition in the American marketplace is good for the growth of the sport but poses a challenge to MLS. The top-flight US-based league has long operated in a vacuum where they were the only domestic product significantly promoted on TV. But in recent years, the popularity of European-based club soccer has surged on American television while no comparable growth has been recorded by MLS. Meanwhile, MLS now faces a plucky rival in NASL, who is determined to create its own niche in the market and perhaps even overtake the more established first division league.
Let’s take this past Saturday evening for example when considering MLS’ new-found dilemma.
Having aired a live game on Friday night via UniMas and being locked into “Soccer Sunday” on ESPN and FS1, MLS no longer shows live matches on national television in the United States on Saturday. When MLS announced the revamped and improved television package for the 2015-2022 time period in late 2014, NASL posed little threat in terms of the macro soccer landscape, but in the fluid word of American soccer, things change quickly.
NASL on Saturday night aired a match on beIN SPORTSbetween Indy Eleven and the Ottawa Fury, which featured the commentator duo of Phil Schoen and Matteo Bonetti. At the very same time, an additional NASL game was available via ESPN3 (Miami FC vs. Tampa Bay) and a third game was broadcast on One World Sports, a premium channel few viewers get but one which streams all NASL games free of charge on its website. The NASL matchup on beIN SPORTS had been promoted throughout the day during La Liga and Serie A coverage, which included the clash between AC Milan and Juventus. Many hardcore soccer fans who are not exposed to either MLS or NASL might have tuned in for the Indy Eleven versus Ottawa Fury game (we’ll know more later this week when TV rating numbers are made available). It is also worth noting that every NASL team, save newly-formed Miami FC, has a local TV deal, many on over-the-air channels.
Meanwhile, USL had a half dozen games streaming via the league’s website and YouTube, for free. Competing with these NASL and USL broadcasts were six MLS games during the day all of which were only available with a subscription to MLS Live for out-of-market viewers.
During last year’s regular season, MLS’ TV ratings improved due to the move of nationally-televised games to Sunday as well as increased promotion, but have stagnated early this season. The emergence of accessible domestic rivals is somewhat significant because core soccer fans in the United States haven’t fully embraced MLS. Many US-based fans of the sport who wake up early on Saturday mornings to catch Premier League action on NBC or spend Sundays watching big Liga MX games on various platforms have still not adopted MLS as the domestic outlet for their soccer passions.
NASL, and USL to a lesser extent, being available particularly on Saturday nights could really throw a monkey wrench into MLS’ long-term hopes of conquering the soccer market in the US. Regardless of league rhetoric expressed by Don Garber and other MLS executives, less than half of those who watch soccer passionately in the United States follow MLS. While far fewer currently follow NASL, the potential is there particularly considering that beIN SPORTS is an outlet many non-MLS oriented soccer fans already watch.
While it’s fair to say MLS remains on more attractive media outlets than NASL, the upstart second division might just have more committed television partners and a better night on the calendar with which to showcase its top talent to soccer fans across the US.