Photo credit: Ira L. Black – Corbis / Contributor

In a press conference with U.S. soccer media this week, MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave an update on the media rights deal. As background, the current deal expires at the end of this year. MLS is still on track to announce the winning bidders for the 2023-28 deal next month.

Until then, there’s a lot to dive into.

Who the contenders are still remains a well-kept secret. World Soccer Talk sources continue to remain certain that WarnerMedia are very interested. Given that AT&T WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery is moving ahead, the timeline of an April 2022 closing is timely for Major League Soccer. The merged mega company (to be named Warner Bros. Discovery) will likely launch its own streaming service in late 2022 or early 2023 to compete against Disney+ and Netflix. Combining media and entertainment assets that include TNT, HBO Max, Discovery+, CNN, TBS, Discovery Channel and the Warner Brothers film studio, the only piece that’s missing is sports. Hence, their interest in the new MLS rights deal that begins in 2023.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber alluded to the quantity of coverage available. “It’s a global package,” explained Garber. “It’s got 500 to 600 games, including MLS NEXT and MLS NEXT Pro. It has our local rights, which have never been offered before, our Spanish and English rights and our Leagues Cup rights.”

Leagues Cup offers MLS a boost

Garber’s mention of Leagues Cup is key. The inclusion of that competition in the MLS media rights deal will offer viewers a true head-to-head tournament between all of the clubs in Major League Soccer and Liga MX. It’s hardly a sweetener, though. It’s much more given the popularity of Liga MX games on United States television.

The addition of Leagues Cup will be of particular interest to Spanish-language broadcasters, from TelevisaUnivision (and its new ViX+ streaming service) as well as Telemundo Deportes and FOX Deportes, among others.

Garber added, “[The MLS media rights deal] is an unprecedentedly unique package with every single game, whether it’s a traditionally national linear game or it’s a local game that has been aired locally in our markets in the U.S. in particular, or it’s a global game. As you would expect, there’s a lot of interest in that. But as the world continues to shift from a media perspective, we’re talking to anybody that is in this business, whether it’s a streamer or a more traditional media company.

“I’m encouraged by the interest, and we hope to be able to finalize something soon.”

Timing is everything

The timing of the rights deal couldn’t be better for MLS. Interest in the league is growing especially with the recent success that Major League Soccer has seen in the South. Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville and Austin, in particular, have been great case studies for the league. And its future expansion into Las Vegas seems likely, which will add lot of glitz and glamor. The sports gambling connection doesn’t hurt either.

More importantly, though, the timing of the streaming wars (featuring several major media giants looking for new content) is what will likely drive up the value and interest in the MLS deal from 2023 through 2028, and beyond. Apple, Amazon, fuboTV, ESPN+ and Paramount+ are all making major plays for live sports.

MLS cuts the cord with U.S. Soccer

Deep at the heart of this new deal is a Major League Soccer that’s going solo. It’ll be the first time in the modern era that the rights to MLS are no longer packaged together with the United States’ men and women teams.

Commissioner Garber had a lot to say on the topic. In closing, here’s what he told World Soccer Talk:

“I haven’t talked about it for many years, so I appreciate the question. Let me start by saying in 2002, when we took over by purchasing the rights to the U.S. Soccer Federation, along with purchasing the rights for the English-language media rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, it was done out of necessity for those properties. FIFA wasn’t able to sell the English-language rights and U.S. Soccer did not have anybody bidding for those rights at that time. So MLS invested in those rights. Put FIFA aside, it worked out very well in getting the market rejuvenated and creating an interest in the game, particularly on the English-language side, because they had no challenges on the Spanish language side. Then, in 2010 and beyond, they were on their own and look at how successful that’s been.

“Over the last 20 years, Major League Soccer’s marketing company, Soccer United Marketing, managed both the media rights and the sponsorship rights, and built a business for U.S. Soccer, one that they are now managing on their own. And in many ways, while we were a strategic partner as an agent representative, because the money that was generated was invested back into the sport as opposed to an agency that would just use it for whatever business purposes they had operating as an agent, we put them in the business, and that’s a positive. U.S. Soccer has built out a commercial company. They are certainly very capable and have gone out and renewed their deal with Nike. They’re out in the market and I’m hopeful they’ll be able to finalize a media deal soon. But it’s a very different business for us and for them than it was back in the day.

“While there was a lot of buzz on U.S. Soccer making the decision to go on their own, it was one that was in their best interest, and frankly, it was one that was in Major League Soccer’s best interest. I have absolutely no concerns whatsoever that will have any effect on our negotiations. Frankly, if I were to sit and look from afar, I think it sets up U.S. Soccer to be on their own, like any property would want to be when they have the capability to be able to manage their rights. I wish them the best. I truly do. I’m a board member and I want nothing more than for them to be successful.”

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