The North American Soccer League (NASL) today announced a global partnership with ESPN whereby a minimum of a 120 NASL matches each season will be carried across 75 nations on various ESPN online platforms including ESPN3.com in the United States.
While MLS secured a 7-year TV deal starting this season, the top-flight league was unable to launch a promised partnership with ESPN where they raised expectations that all games would be available online. With MLS and ESPN unable to launch for the 2015 MLS season, MLS decided to stick with MLS Live instead as the main option to watch games online.
With MLS focusing its TV deals on regular timeslots on Fridays (UniMas) and Sundays (ESPN2 and FOX Sports 1), that leaves a huge hole on Saturday nights that NASL can fill given that Saturday night games on MLS are only available nationally via MLS Live.
Now, the second-tier NASL has suddenly become more accessible online to soccer fans in the United States than MLS. The ESPN3 deal could prove a boon to the nascent NASL in their efforts to provide “a highly competitive alternative,” as the league claimed yesterday in an official release related to Minnesota United’s impending move from NASL to MLS.
As part of the NASL-ESPN deal, eight NASL clubs — Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada FC, Minnesota United FC, San Antonio Scorpions, and Tampa Bay Rowdies — will deliver all 15 regular season home matches live on ESPN3 in the US, ESPN Play in Latin America, and ESPN Player in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
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Each participating NASL team will upgrade its video and online capabilities. For example, this season the Tampa Bay Rowdies will have at least ten different camera angles available and a high-caliber broadcast team to deliver the club’s home matches.
Meanwhile, New York Cosmos home games will air on One World Sports and the home games from the league’s two Canadian clubs who have separate media deals were not included in the ESPN package.
The NASL package will be free for ESPN subscribers, while the MLS charges $74.99 for season access to online games.
NASL and USL games have been accessible in the past, but never in mass on a mainstream platform like ESPN3. While today’s announcement does not impact MLS directly, it could push new fans outside MLS markets towards the second division NASL. Some can argue that would be a healthy development for the sport in North America as the stronger the entire soccer pyramid is, the better for the long-term growth of the game.
“Working with ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, is going to be of great benefit to our fans, who will be able to watch the vast majority of our matches on ESPN3, ESPN Play, and ESPN Player this year,” said NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson. “We have quickly developed a great relationship with ESPN, and we’re glad to be a part of their live coverage.”