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WarnerMedia, Turner a quiet candidate for next MLS rights

WarnerMedia MLS Rights

AT&T’s media entity WarnerMedia is in the mix for at least a piece of the MLS rights.

In fact, WarnerMedia showed interest in acquiring the U.S. rights to the English Premier League. However, NBC extended its deal with the EPL in November through the 2027/28 season. Since then, MLS appeared as the next big media rights package up for grabs.

Among the likes of ESPN, FOX, and CBS, WarnerMedia has interest in acquiring at least a piece of MLS’s domestic rights.

WarnerMedia’s bid for Premier League rights fell just short. Yet, it was not for a lack of financial resources. With the monetary means still available, WarnerMedia can direct these to other potential rights. Ergo, Major League Soccer.

Our sources at World Soccer Talk indicated that WarnerMedia and its subsidiary, Turner Sports, are dialed-in on MLS. The current MLS rights deal expires at the end of the 2022 season. WarnerMedia eyes up at least a piece of the rights starting in 2023.

WarnerMedia and Turner’s Soccer Coverage

WarnerMedia’s bid for Premier League rights likely included multiple linear channels. Additionally, the media conglomerate included the potential of multiple streaming services. As things stand, the Discovery-AT&T merger awaits regulatory approvals. Even then, HBO Max and Bleacher Report remain streaming options for MLS.

The Discovery piece was probably more critical for European rights, such as the Premier League, as Discovery Networks have significant experience broadcasting soccer in Europe. Experience is something that WarnerMedia lacks in terms of European soccer coverage.

Many soccer fans dismiss Turner Sports because of the difficult 19 months they had broadcasting UEFA club competitions. In reality, WarnerMedia changed significantly since then. Moreover, Turner’s coverage of European competitions does not terribly bother or interest most MLS fans.

In fact, Turner’s millennial-centric approach to coverage could be attractive to some of MLS’s target audience. This is especially applicable in places like Austin and Nashville, which of course have relatively new clubs.

However, one caveat is for the broadcaster to avoid branding all of its coverage with the “B/R Live” moniker. Not only is that brand damaged, but it serves to trivialize the coverage. The Turner Sports name has much more residual name ID and credibility among sports fans. This includes a number of American soccer fans.

Turner vs. The Competition

One important note in this discussion is that Turner Sports does not broadcast any college football currently. Despite a rich history in the sport including the SEC, PAC-10 and Big 12, ESPN and FOX have a strangle on college football. Of course, this makes WarnerMedia and Turner a more attractive potential partner for MLS.

Additionally, outside of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the provider does not broadcast college basketball. Turner  lost virtually all its golf coverage as well and does not broadcast the NFL.

Turner Sports does broadcast the NBA, MLB and NHL. However, most programming conflicts that hobbled MLS and soccer in general through the years happened due to carriers prioritizing NFL or college football. Therefore, Turner is ideal for Major League Soccer.

The Next MLS TV deal

The package that MLS is offering broadcasters beginning in 2023 differs greatly from previous years. One major gap is that, in this go-round, the rights do not include the USMNT and USWNT. But, in its place, MLS has an exciting new summer tournament, the Leagues Cup. Additionally, the deal, expected to find a suitor in early 2022, features matches from a new third division. The league, known as MLS Next Pro, includes both MLS reserve teams and independent clubs.

MLS will presumably also include matches from its MLS Next youth academy program in the package.  MLS Next is two seasons old now. Therefore, it was not included in the previous negotiations for MLS rights.

WarnerMedia and MLS Rights

Here is a quick primer of what WarnerMedia covering MLS could look like:

  • A weekly weekend match broadcast on TNT or TBS. This could slot in on a Sunday evening and feature full studio wraparound coverage. Compare it to how Turner broadcasts the NBA and NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournaments. Or, WarnerMedia could go the millennial-feel route like they did with UEFA club competitions. One thing they should do for sure is market the broadcasts as “Turner Sports” or “TNT or TBS” instead of “B/R Live.” TruTV remains an option if needed for spillover matches or due to broadcast conflicts.
  • Turner produces a weekly magazine program that airs sometime during the week on MLS. This is something ESPN has failed to consistently deliver on its years broadcasting the league, with many stops, starts and stops again on various MLS-related bumped programming. The program could be broadcast on either TBS or TNT.
  • HBO Max splits streaming for MLS with another partner (presumably either CBS or ESPN’s streaming components). HBO Max as a streaming service is far more reliable technologically and stability-wise than the clunky B/R Live used on European club coverage from 2018 to 2020.
  • In order to keep Bleacher Report viable and attractive, MLSNext Pro matches are sent to that streaming service with a once-a-week carve out for either broadcast on TNT/TBS or HBO Max.
  • Leagues Cup is shown on multiple networks during the summer using the full thrust of Turner and WarnerMedia’s bandwidth. Only sports programming conflicts will likely be with the MLB as the competition will likely coincide with the NHL and NBA offseason. Imagine Turner showing different Leagues Cup matches on TNT, TBS and HBO Max in a single night.
  • MLS Next, the youth competition could be broadcast occasionally on Bleacher Report. Broadcasting youth competitions has its own legal framework separate from professional or college competitions, so we assume MLS and potential media partners make all of the required legal clearances on this.

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Tobo

    January 18, 2022 at 7:06 pm

    LOL. @Soccer Watcher.

    From their handle to their comment, their motto should be, “LOOK AT ME! I’M STARVING FOR ATTENTION FROM STRANGERS ON A SPORTS COMMENT SECTION!”

    What a laughable troll. So bad that it isn’t worth responding when even nothing else is on the internet.

  2. Leo

    January 17, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    Good that different broadcasting companies spend in soccer. I hope TNT can get the all the MLS rights.

  3. Edwin

    January 17, 2022 at 6:19 pm

    @Roberto those type of folkd that go overboard with the LOL I don’t watch MLS and NO ONE CARES are just haters of MLS trying to strike up negative social media engagement its a common tactic on Twitter. Like there are a bunch of leagues I don’t watch but you don’t see me going out of my way to lol @UberEats Ligue 1 etc. Myself and QUITE a few others will follow MLS to where networks or platforms get the rights, it a exciting league,

  4. Roberto

    January 15, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    @Soccer Watcher; if you do not watch MLS, how can you make the above judgement? The MLS provides entertaining and fairly competitive football. There are rarely any parked buses in this league. People without knowledge of what they are talking about should keep their opinions to themselves.

  5. Ra

    January 15, 2022 at 10:33 am

    @Soccer Watcher Being a no fan of MLS either, I wonder what are the cross-league viewership habits. (i.e., what combination of leagues do people watch)

  6. Soccer Watcher

    January 15, 2022 at 10:03 am

    LOL. MLS.

    From the teams to the fans, their motto should be, “LOOK AT US! WE TRY!”

    What a laughable league. So bad that it isn’t worth watching when even nothing else is on TV.

  7. dave

    January 13, 2022 at 4:20 pm

    Thank you for the update. Turner do a great job with MLB playoffs and March Madness. I caught my first Turner NHL game yesterday and it was fine. Similar in quality to NHL on NBC.
    .
    Agree with @Meractor in having a positive association with Turner sports and an extremely negative association with the B/R app. Kartik calling the B/R brand “damaged” is consistent with my experience from UCL/UEL.
    .
    Agree with @Roberto and @Mercator about risks of fragmentation. I only catch a few MLS games per year so I am not the target audience. But no chance I sign up for yet another service to watch MLS. I hope I can still catch a few games on some combination of ESPN+, TUDN, Prende, etc. I would probably sign up for a month of Leagues Cup
    .
    @Bram raises good questions. I suspect MLS may plan to allow streaming of all non-national games, like ESPN+ for NHL but without local blackouts. Would be a big win for many MLS fans if so. Agree OTA is a question mark
    .
    Any news on the Spanish rights?

  8. Mercator

    January 13, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    TNT/TBS do a good job with the sports they have now so I wouldn’t mind this proposal. That said, I’m not subscribing to HBO Max for HALF the MLS games or something, so the idea of splitting the streaming rights seems poor. Either put it all on HBO Max or just stick with TNT/TBS and other cable broadcasts and leave the streaming to CBS or ESPN. Completely agree they should never use B/R Live or Bleacher Report or whatever that crap is ever again.

    Truthfully though, if it’s not streaming on ESPN+ I’m going to watch a lot less. I would love an NBA live type show on TNT for MLS though, do it at a consistent time on a consistent day of the week and it would be a hit.

  9. Bram Weiser

    January 13, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks, Kartik. However, I think you missed a couple of key points in this article although, admittedly, you state up-front that this is perhaps for only “a piece” of the overall English-language MLS package…

    * It appears (to the untrained eye, at least) that MLS has been getting more and more over-the-air broadcast coverage in recent years from ABC & Fox than they’ve had in earlier years. Going with WarnerMedia removes that component from that part of any upcoming deal unless Warner partners directly, as it does with NCAA Basketball, with a network partner, such as CBS (its NCAA partner, too).

    * MLS Commissioner Don Garber has made a point of including even the local/regional rights to the various teams in the package now being negotiated…but, aside from offering a way of streaming matches into the participating teams’ markets, how else (again, unless some kind of partnering takes place with a broadcaster, whether over-the-air or via a Regional Sports Network {RSN}) could WarnerMedia offer telecasts at that level? They don’t own RSNs or have much, if at all, ownership interest in any other form of local media (unless one takes a leap of faith and says that stations owned by the same companies that co-own The CW along with Warner, such as Nexstar’s WPIX in New York, say, would be included in this offer) that’s able to telecast local matches, so what happens there?

    …and, if the answer there is that, “oh, WarnerMedia might simply be able to sell those rights to a local broadcaster”, then what, pray tell, would have been the point of MLS bringing the local rights into this package in the first place?

    (For the record, though, aside from network-owned TV stations in some, but not all, markets, what the other English-language partner options {e.g., CBS, ESPN/ABC, Fox, NBC} can offer in this regard is similarly limited.)

    So, I think your point here, that WarnerMedia is a truly credible option for these rights, needs further exploration given the points I raised here before declaring them as such.

    Thanks again,
    Bram Weiser

  10. Roberto

    January 13, 2022 at 9:14 am

    Interesting article, Turner networks have not gotten much mention in the bidding for the new MLS package. If they just want part of the package, my worry is if it is split up among too many carriers it may have less overall viewers. Having a weekly OTA magazine would be great.

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