MLS TV Coverage in 2015: Will FOX and ESPN Be Able to Match NBC’s Perfectionism?

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NBC broadcasted their final MLS game, the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution.

It was a fittingly great game for a network that raised the bar of MLS coverage to go out on. The care, professionalism and quality of NBC’s presentation of the league was typically superb.

Replacing NBC with FOX – as MLS does when the league’s new television deal kicks in at the start of next year – is troubling.

That doesn’t mean the move was hard to predict. FOX wanted to increase their soccer-rights and give more live sports to their fledgling cable channel FOX Sports 1, and NBC was reluctant to match the price that MLS wanted for rights given how poor the TV ratings were last season.

ESPN re-upped their deal with the league as well, increasing their commitment with more games and streaming for all non-national TV games on ESPN3. ESPN has been an MLS partner since the beginning and the Worldwide Leader and FOX are frequent partners, especially on soccer – a group from FOX visited ESPN’s studio during the 2014 World Cup.

The new deal also includes Univision, which will broadcast games exclusively on Friday nights and get a playoff game. Overall the league will net in excess of $90 million dollars over the next eight years.

Crucially, much of the value to networks in the MLS deal is the tie-in it has with the US National Team. Rights to US home games will be split between ESPN and FOX as well, as will marquee events like the MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

ESPN and FOX will broadcast MLS games back-to-back on Sunday afternoon and evening, giving the league the permanent time-slot that many have predicted will help long-term ratings and traction with casual viewers.

It’s a good deal. It’s a necessary deal for a league that enters its third decade with ever-expanding ambitions and a ballooning portfolio of clubs in major media markets.

But it’s also a gamble. MLS is locked into a long-term commitment that doesn’t include the TV partner that has presented its product best over the last three years, and does include the network that has had considerable trouble presenting MLS, and really, anything soccer-related, in the past.

FOX, which hasn’t broadcasted MLS since its first ill-fated journey with the league ended in 2011, will assemble its on-air team in the coming days.

One positive for MLS is that FOX is also preparing for its presentations of the upcoming men’s and women’s World Cups, making more money available to pursue talent and the network’s overall offerings more attractive to that talent.

Brad Fridel has already joined FOX Sports, though it’s unclear if he’ll be involved in MLS coverage, something he hasn’t done yet in his media career.

Alexi Lalas also appears set to leave ESPN for FOX. Lalas is as recognizable an American analyst as there is – and he already lives in LA, where FOX Sports is based.

But Lalas isn’t a game-caller – instead, he’s more interested in his role as an information-gatherer and provocateur. Expect to see him in the studio – which most likely will be in LA and not on the road like NBC had it – for MLS action.

Rob Stone will most likely be the studio host – he participated in the State of the League roundtable with MLS commissioner Don Garber as FOX’s only representative, and has worked on MLS for ESPN in the past.

What’s more unclear is who FOX will get to call their games.

The company made a major run at Taylor Twellman, offering the lead analyst spot to him before he ultimately decided to sign an extension with ESPN.

There may be a better idea of who will be the play-by-play man. John Strong, who took over for Arlo White when NBC got Premier League rights, has an existing relationship with FOX, for whom he has called numerous events over the last three years.

Strong, who doesn’t nearly have the touch White does, but is, nonetheless, one of the only up-and-coming American announcers in the game, needs a full-time gig. The bridge is already built, even if FOX could serve themselves well with a more aggressive hire.

Gus Johnson, in fact, would have been great for MLS and would have benefited greatly from calling MLS.

Gus had his best moments as a soccer announcer during the 2013 Gold Cup, where he had a comfort level with the players, stadiums, and culture that he couldn’t possibly ascertain in Europe.

Had FOX introduced Johnson to soccer this year with MLS instead of with the Champions League three years ago, things might have gone very different. Gus would have gotten more reps in a lower-stakes environment and improved.

While FOX’s coverage is of the most pressing concern, ESPN’s also needs freshening.

With no MLS studio show, outdated graphics, and a very low-cost presentation, ESPN should use the beginning of their new deal – their biggest ever commitment to MLS – to improve.

Twellman is terrific, and his extension helps, but losing Lalas will open up a spot on the network’s MLS coverage that ESPN can use creatively.

Lead commentator Adrian Healey also appears locked in for the long run, and while his genuine support of MLS and experience in the profession are assets, it might be best to add another broadcaster to split time with Healey – both because of Healey’s other commitments on ESPN’s soccer coverage and the fact that his languid style isn’t universally popular.

ESPN has never broadcasted MLS each week before, and the network should send the message to viewers that it doesn’t regard MLS games as second-rate broadcasts.

It will be interesting to see how the media setup shakes out for the 2015 season. Just as it will be for MLS, the upcoming season will be a crucial one for the league’s new media partners.

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7 Comments

  1. GallipolisVC December 10, 2014
  2. Roy Gathercoal December 20, 2014
    • Chad December 22, 2014
      • Roy Gathercoal December 23, 2014
        • Roy Gathercoal December 23, 2014
        • GallipoliVC December 23, 2014
    • Chad December 22, 2014

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