US Soccer must unbundle USWNT from MLS and SUM TV rights deal

In the wake of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph, much has been discussed in terms of equal pay for female players. What seems to be missing from the discussion, however, is how much potential revenue the US women lose because of the co-mingling of broadcast and media rights of US Soccer Federation (USSF) properties with those of Major League Soccer (MLS).

The contract for these rights is not held by some media company or broadcast channel but by Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which is owned by MLS. While transparency has never been a strong suit of the USSF or MLS, this contract — which was apparently awarded in a no-bid process — is even more questionable.

Currently, the USSF is embroiled in several pieces of high-profile litigation almost all of which question the relationship between the federation, at least ostensibly a neutral governing body, and MLS/SUM. The USSF currently faces questions in legal proceedings about its alleged favoritism toward MLS in terms of men’s pro leagues, its favoring of SUM in terms of match promoters and its favoring of MLS academies over independent ones when it comes to the issues of solidarity payments as well as training compensation.

In the case of the US women, the big concern is that SUM is siphoning off revenue that is generated by the popularity and success of the USWNT and placing it in a men’s professional league. While US Soccer will argue that they subsidize the top women’s professional league in other ways and some MLS clubs have invested in the women’s game as well, the obvious reality is that the federation has gifted the nation’s top men’s league a lucrative revenue source other men’s leagues lack as well as the top women’s league.

NWSL is not part of the eight year TV deal that SUM secured for MLS, USMNT and USWNT in 2014.

With the current television contract that bundles US Soccer properties with MLS set to expire in 2022, it’s imperative that the federation unbundle the rights, allowing the governing body to emerge as impartial to all leagues and clubs while maximizing the revenue the national team programs generate.

In early 2018, when running for US Soccer President, Carlos Cordeiro described the problematic relationship between the USSF and SUM. Cordeiro said:

“The unique ownership of SUM creates conflicts that need to be addressed. To avoid any and all conflicts going forward, USSF will need to ensure that any individuals with potential conflicts of interest are recused from any future negotiations with SUM that is why I have proposed a new Board-level commercial committee to be chaired by one of our independent board directors to oversee the entire process.”

However, since becoming President, Cordeiro has done nothing to reign in the favoritism toward SUM and MLS. During his tenure the USSF has found itself the subject of more controversy while the media halo that once protected the establishment figures of the game in this country has fallen away. Questions are being asked more and more about US Soccer’s perceived favoritism toward MLS and SUM on matters as disparate as league governance, player development, international friendlies, TV revenue and sanctioning fees.

Currently SUM pays about $30 million a year to the USSF per the federation’s annual report. This line item is not itemized as media revenue or even as sanctioning fees which it assumed SUM must pay to host friendlies between MLS clubs and international teams as well as the regular Mexican National Team games held on US soil.

In this climate, US Soccer has no choice but to split the television packages. They should allow competitive bidding on the package that involves US national teams while SUM should maintain the right to sell MLS games. What should be done as well is SUM be given the rights to bundle NWSL, the nation’s top women’s league and arguably the best league in the world of women’s football with an MLS package. This will also give the women’s club game, at least in theory, the same access to television that has been given to the men’s pro game.

Unbundling the rights are a critical step forward as at this point in time we have no clear empirical evidence of the value of any subset of the currently bundled package. This means it is speculation albeit educated speculation that the rights for MLS are worth more than the US national teams.

In theory the bundling of rights was done in the past to give MLS an opportunity to get on television without having to buy time. It was originally done in 2006 at a time when antitrust concerns about US Soccer’s governance of the sport had not been yet voiced let alone put into a major lawsuit. It was also a time where MLS with only 12 teams was struggling. However as the runaway success of clubs in Atlanta, Seattle, Orlando and Portland among other locales demonstrates, MLS has developed its own unique culture and expanding fan base in the nation. At this point the continued bundling of rights looks more like a subsidy by the USSF to MLS, allowing the interpretation that the federation is playing favorites, tipping the balance toward MLS against potential competitors. This subsidy, it could argued, would be more useful for lower division leagues, the top women’s league, travel and promotion for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup or even grassroots soccer.

US Soccer is sitting on a surplus of $150 million while allowing its own media rights to be devalued by bundling with MLS. Imagine a world with unbundled rights, with the US Men’s and Women’s National Teams value as a media property being fully utilized thus allowing the federation to invest ever more money into player development and grassroots programs for both boys and girls. That is where US Soccer needs to be headed in its thinking. The continued bundling of rights with MLS makes this less possible.

Additionally, if MLS and NWSL rights are bundled together, SUM and MLS could accurately say they are doing a great deal to grow women’s club soccer in the United States. It would be a win-win for everyone.