Delays in MLS’s streaming partnership with ESPN leads to further disappointment

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When MLS announced the new television carriage deal, one of the most promising aspects was the out-of-market streaming rights. ESPN insisted on procuring those rights, with reported plans to deliver via the ESPN3/WatchESPN platform. This would have been a welcome change from MLS’s pay-service, MLS Live, as early reports suggested current ESPN3 subscribers would pay nothing further.

Alas, that won’t be happening, at least this year. A week ago, it was announced that MLS Live is back, and for higher prices. Time ran out for ESPN to monetize the service for those without authentication from their ISP or Cable provider, so MLS has pulled it back. And if your current arrangement led you to believe you’d get free MLS streaming in 2015, you’re out of luck.

The TV deal represented a step forward for MLS, especially in the area of dedicated TV time slots. Time slot uncertainty was considered a contributing factor to low Nielsen ratings, and so the league must be applauded for this development. When you added the potential for free streaming, it provided a lot of hope for major growth in viewership in 2015.

But it sure feels like MLS is missing the boat with an opportunity to connect to the younger “cord-cutting” generation. More and more people are consuming their sports through streaming devices such as Playstation, Xbox, Roku, Chromecast, or even their laptop or tablet.

Additionally, the World Cup is a primary route of entry for the average American to pro soccer. Joe American may not be interested in their local club, but he or she may have learned about Michael Bradley playing in Toronto or Clint Dempsey in Seattle. You can bet they’re playing those teams on FIFA 15.

This is where MLS is truly different from the big four sports – even if you have your local favorite team, it’s not unreasonable to follow your favorite American internationals at their club.

It’s understandable that MLS wants to make money from its out-of-market package. But for those who were excited to receive those matches at no cost, it stinks. It’s even more annoying when considering the current labor situation, with the potential for a work stoppage.

To alleviate these concerns, the league could have split the out-of-market package this year between ESPN3 and MLS Live. That would have allowed ESPN3 subscribers to watch for free, and offer MLS Live for those without ESPN3 access. This wouldn’t be without some precedent – the NHL offered great discounts on their out of market package in 2012 when half the season was lost to a lockout. Perhaps the league couldn’t justify keeping MLS Live around for a fraction of the typical subscribership.

To me, it’s a bad PR move for MLS with its loyal fans. To hint towards free out-of-market viewing for many people, only to essentially renege, leaves a bad taste. Hopefully those fans come back and subscribe to MLS Live.

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23 Comments

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