In 2019, NYCFC matches aired locally in the New York metro area on the YES Network and YES2. Nationally, NYCFC appeared on ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, Univision, and Unimás. The club’s matches also streamed on three different platforms: FOX Sports Go, Twitter, and MLS Live on ESPN+. That’s ten different viewing options for what is only a 34-game regular season. More isn’t merrier when supporters have to hustle to hunt down exactly where they can watch their club’s matches every week.
NYCFC local broadcast home is the YES Network because the Yankees own 20% of the MLS club. But being on America’s most-watched regional sports network means sharing airtime with America’s most-watched baseball team. So NYCFC’s matches get bumped to YES2, an overflow channel when the Bronx Bombers are bashing baseballs on YES.
YES2 isn’t a permanent channel. It only appears when NYCFC or the Brooklyn Nets play at the same time as the Yankees. And unfortunately, major cable providers like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner) and Verizon don’t even offer YES2 on their regular packages in most of New York City.
Six of NYCFC’s 34 regular season games in 2019 were bumped to YES2 because of Yankee pre-emption on YES. Fans in New York City without YES2 access were thus forced to stream those six games on FOX Sports Go via their laptops or phones – so long as they had a cable subscription. Non-cable subscribers in NYC who paid for MLS Live on ESPN+ couldn’t watch those games because of blackout rules.
NYCFC’s rivals, the Red Bulls, are on MSG. It’s a James Dolan-owned regional sports network that also carries the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers, the New Jersey Devils, and the New York Islanders. But MSG’s overflow channel MSG Plus, unlike YES2, has a permanent and dedicated presence on metro area TVs.
Then there’s the fact that almost half of NYCFC’s matches were picked for national broadcasts. Five networks; FS1, ESPN, ESPN2, Univision, and Unimás, aired NYCFC’s 12 national appearances. And Twitter offered an English language stream for the matches that aired on Univision and Unimás.
But MLS’ Twitter streams are poorly promoted. Searching for “MLS stream” is more likely to return results for illegal streams instead of Twitter’s own because the app’s search function is awful.
Worse, Twitter’s MLS streams aren’t reliable. Twitter didn’t start streaming NYCFC’s September 7 match against the New England Revolution until 30 minutes in. Frustrated fans looking for that match were met with stony silence from both Twitter and MLS. In contrast, CBS apologized profusely for a broadcast outage in the Chiefs-Jaguars NFL game that same weekend.
Every sport disperses its broadcast rights across different platforms. But NYCFC’s situation is extreme compared to the other teams in town. All local Knicks broadcasts are on MSG, while national broadcasts are on ESPN, ABC, or TNT. All local Ranger broadcasts are on MSG or MSG Plus, while all national broadcasts are on NBC or NBCSN. All local Met broadcasts are on SNY or over-the-air WPIX/Channel 11. All local Yankee broadcasts are on YES or over-the-air WPIX/Channel 11. And all national baseball broadcasts are on ESPN, FOX, or TBS.
NFL fans have it best of all. Giant and Jet fans know that all 16 regular season games will be broadcast for free on over-the-air channels. CBS and FOX air all the Sunday afternoon games while NBC broadcasts the Sunday night game. Then the NFL goes above and beyond by making sure that even cable broadcasts, like ESPN’s Monday Night Football, air for free over-the-air in the local markets of the two teams playing. So, in 2019, New York’s WNYW/Channel 5 aired the Giants and Jets’ Monday Night and Thursday Night Football appearances.
The viewing situation won’t improve for NYCFC fans in 2020 as both the local and national broadcast deals remain in place. Fans will still have to scramble every week to see where they can watch their club.
To be sure, there are other MLS clubs with better local broadcast deals. For example, Seattle’s local matches air on KCPQ and KZJO, both free over-the-air broadcast channels.
But the broadcast picture could soon change dramatically. MLS recently told all of its clubs to not negotiate any new local broadcast deals past 2022. The league hopes to package both its national games and each club’s local games for a broadcast partner starting in 2023. ESPN+, which currently offers MLS Live for out-of-local market matches, could be a good fit.
It’d be a vast improvement for all MLS matches to have a predictable and reliable weekly viewing home. Under MLS’ proposed plan, local matches would almost certainly only be available for streaming unless the media platform that buys MLS’ new combo package then re-sells each club’s local rights to local broadcasters.
There’s a risk with moving matches to streaming only, even if it’s to a popular platform like ESPN+. There are plenty of fans who don’t have smart TVs, or who aren’t adept at streaming, or who aren’t comfortable casting content from their laptop or phone to their TVs. MLS’ potential post-2022 plan could leave behind the fans who want to simply turn on their TV to watch their local club, like they do for their NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL teams.
There’s a difference between a fan paying for a cable package or over-the-top service that not only includes a network showing MLS matches but also other sports and non-sports networks and a fan paying for a service that only delivers MLS matches. MLS isn’t mainstream enough yet to rely on fans following the league behind a paywall.
The answer could be in old-fashioned tech, namely free over-the-air broadcast TV. The NFL, the most-watched league in the country, lets a team’s local fans watch all their games on free over-the-air broadcast TV. College football, the second most-watched sport in the country, offers its best games on free over-the-air broadcast TV each Saturday. Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently wondered if too many basketball games are on cable TV.
What’s clear is that the new post-2022 MLS broadcast plan needs to make it as easy as possible for people to watch its matches. Fans need both a predictable time to tune in and a predictable, easily accessible place to tune into. In other words, MLS fans need to know that matches will be on the “same bat time, same bat channel.”