Major League Soccer (MLS) is hoping its next TV deal is worth significantly more per year than the current deal that expires at the end of next season. The current deal began in 2015. It includes properties owned by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) and managed by MLS’ marketing arm Soccer United Marketing (SUM). But how much of the MLS TV rights deal depends on Leagues Cup potential?
Current rights holders Univision as well as ESPN and FOX will likely bid in an effort to retain MLS rights. The expectation is that several other media companies including ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia will bid for MLS media rights.
MLS TV deal without US National Team rights
The next TV package will not include the USSF piece of the previous TV deal. In short, USSF has decided to bring its media rights back in house. This leaves MLS in a potentially precarious position. The rights to USMNT-USWNT matches were a major reason why the broadcasters combined paid $90 million annually for MLS.
It is pretty clear that a big chunk of the value was directly tied to the USSF piece of the package. Theoretically, the loss of the USSF part of the deal would make the next rights package less valuable. MLS’ TV ratings have not grown as well since the time of the previous media rights package. However, when MLS negotiated its last deal, the league had 20 teams. This deal will feature nine more clubs in the league with potentially more expansion on the horizon.
Enter Leagues Cup
MLS/SUM have created a clever way to add more value to the next TV deal despite losing the USSF package. Currently SUM operates a summer tournament known as Leagues Cup. It pits four top Liga MX sides against four selected MLS ones. Subsequently, when the new TV deal begins in 2023 for MLS, changes are afoot. The Leagues Cup will expand from eight teams to include the entire roster of MLS and Liga MX. That is a minimum of 47 teams in total.
Leagues Cup will be a component of the new MLS deal, effectively replacing the USSF portion of the previous package.
Both Liga MX and MLS will pause their respective seasons for a month in the summer for the competition. In addition, Leagues Cup now will carry with it sanctioning from Concacaf. Therefore, it will be the first cup competition in the world to include every team from two separate FIFA-sanctioned first divisions.
Expanding the competition in theory is about improving the level of club play in North America. MLS has touted the value of the new competition in many ways. First, to improve player development. Second, to increase squad depth. Third, to create more meaningful matches. Traditionally, MLS seasons have been long where in some cases you can lose or draw 60% of your matches and still qualify for postseason play. The league has said that the competition will provide a global window on players and clubs based in North America.
Selling an unproven cup competition
While all of MLS’ reasoning sounds nice, it could have a grain of truth attached to it. Leagues Cup is clearly designed to become the premier TV property under the SUM umbrella. MLS is taking a month off during its season for the competition. The hope is meaningful matches against Liga MX clubs will bring more eyeballs to the product. The winner, runners-up and third-placed team will get an automatic spot in the following season’s Concacaf Champions League. That competition gives every MLS side an opportunity to qualify for the expanded 2025 FIFA World Club Cup.
In an interview with The Athletic, Charlotte FC President Nick Kelly had this to say about the Leagues Cup:
Well, it is interesting because we have got the expanded Leagues Cup coming in 2023 and that is a big, formal start with [Liga MX]. The fact that we are going to shut down for a whole month to do it is at least a good first step. To work out what this is going to look like, what is the impact on MLS, what is the impact on Liga MX. I think there could be a huge impact from a broadcast point of view. If they have the same level of fandom that the Champions League has in Europe, it is just a home run. We will be coming out of a World Cup, so that is good timing. It could work out really well.
The highest television numbers for club soccer in the United States feature Liga MX. The profile of MLS on Univision exceeds any other property on the broadcaster’s multiple linear channels. Ensuring Univision or another Spanish-language broadcaster pays more in the next rights cycle is critical. Especially as part of the thinking around the expansion of this competition.
MLS TV rights deal depends on Leagues Cup potential
Additionally, Leagues Cup as both a linear-digital property may add more interest in the number of bidders on English language TV. Leagues Cup can fill a critical hole in the summer programming of many linear channels. It also can add increased content for the likes of current rights holders ESPN and FOX. It also will undoubtedly add lots of intriguing matches that streaming services such as ESPN+, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, ViacomCBS’ Paramount+ and others would find interesting.
An expanded Leagues Cup appears to be something that will be entertaining and interesting for fans of the sport. It is a cup competition that virtually merges the two top leagues in North America together for a month of meaningful competitive matches. In a certain manner, the launching of this expanded tournament and the rationalizations around it is a concession from MLS that its regular season is largely meaningless at points, and that TV viewership would likely be higher with more critically competitive matches.
With all this in mind, it is very possible that the Leagues Cup expansion is to give MLS and SUM cover for its most glaring weakness as a media property. That is the lack of meaning to most soccer fans around individual matches during the summer. This need is due to SUM losing the USSF rights, which provided several meaningful matches guaranteed to garner good TV numbers.
Is Leagues Cup the remedy?
It is without question that the expanded Leagues Cup will add an exciting, new dimension to competitive club soccer in North America. But what is really critical to ponder is if this gambit, which involves MLS shutting down its own competition for a month and rendering it effectively secondary in the overall summer landscape of the sport, will net the league a substantial spike in both dollars earned from media rights and TV viewership?
We do not know the answer to this yet, but the Leagues Cup certainly will add flavor to MLS and more value to the competitiveness on the soccer side of its clubs.
But will it be the big TV hit the league needs? And what happens if Liga MX teams dominate winning the competition similar to Concacaf Champions League, making MLS teams look inferior? We do not quite know those answers yet. But a consideration is that MLS is banking its future TV rights success on attracting Liga MX viewers.
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