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

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