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Timing is everything for MLS in pursuit of a new TV deal

MLS in pursuit of a new TV deal

Major League Soccer finds itself in perhaps its most challenging situation since the league retracted two teams in 2002. How MLS addresses the growing concern over its next media rights deal will go a long way to determining its future success. After all, MLS Commissioner Don Garber knows the importance of landing a lucrative media deal.

In 2020, Garber told CNBC, “The need for revenue [from future media rights deals] will be able to satisfy all the things that all of our critics and all of our supporters want. More investment in players, more investment in infrastructure, more investment in marketing and content, and fan development.”

Without a major deal, MLS will unlikely hit its aggressive goals. In 2015, Garber wanted MLS to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. Missing that mark is one thing. But to even get close to being one of the world’s best leagues in the future, signing a new, major media deal in 2022 is imperative. And the way things are heading right now, MLS is falling short of its goal.

Upside down with a long way to go

When asked about the media rights in 2020, Garber said:

“We are entirely upside down [based on our media contracts] compared to all the other leagues.

“Media as it relates to our revenues is frankly the smallest piece of the puzzle and I believe going forward that will change.”

How upside down is MLS? In its joint deal with US Soccer that ends this year, MLS’ revenue is $60 million per year. Looking ahead, the league is seeking $300 million per year in its new deal from 2023 onwards. However, given the lack of interest from legacy sports broadcasters such as FOX Sports and tepid interest from ESPN, the $300 million/year goal appears wholly unrealistic.

Compare MLS’ deal to the Premier League (NBCUniversal is paying $450 million/year) and LaLiga (ESPN is paying $150 million/year). NFL gets $10 billion annually. NBA comes in at $2.6 billion per year.

Losing FOX would be a blow to MLS

If FOX Sports decides not to bid for MLS rights, the league will miss out on a major national television deal for English-language viewers. Yes, ESPN is interested in MLS rights but ESPN+ is the main driver of that.

This season, FOX Sports showcases 34 matches, highlighted by 27 on FS1 and seven on FOX, with twice as many primetime windows as the network’s 2021 slate of games.

Losing FOX Sports would be a major blow for Major League Soccer. Not because of its MLS TV ratings for Sunday night games on FS1. But more so because FOX often broadcasts MLS games on the over-the-air FOX network. In previous years, MLS viewing numbers on FOX have helped boost Major League Soccer TV ratings. Without those over-the-air numbers, MLS would be in an even more of a dire situation when TV ratings are averaged out over a season.

For instance, FOX’s 2021 Thanksgiving Day game drew 1,894 million viewers across FOX and FOX Deportes. It was the second most-viewed MLS match ever when excluding MLS Cups and all-star games.

At the same time that FOX Sports have reportedly shown little interest in renewing MLS rights, the speculation is that FOX Sports could be for sale.

How did the league get into this situation?

US Soccer’s decision to cut media ties with MLS‘ marketing arm Soccer United Marketing has put MLS in a difficult position. The top-flight league is the last to complete a deal in a series of major soccer rights acquisitions.. That began last year when ESPN paid $1.4 billion for LaLiga rights. Thereafter, NBCUniversal paid $2.6 billion for the Premier League. And WarnerMedia secured the US national team rights for $200 million.

The writing was on the wall from broadcasters last fall when they told MLS they wanted to wait until the major deals were completed before determining their level of interest in MLS.

Now that ESPN has arguably overspent on LaLiga, while NBC Universal paid more than expected for the Premier League, those two major broadcasters are unlikely to be willing to spend big money for a league that delivers small viewing numbers.

Timing is everything when it comes to media rights. LaLiga and Premier League timed it perfectly. MLS couldn’t have timed it any worse.

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  1. Michael

    April 8, 2022 at 10:36 pm

    Chris mentioned La Liga ($150 M), EPL ($450 M), NBA ($2.6 Billion), NFL ($10.0 Billion). While it is true that these all renewed in 2021…none of these are really a direct competitors to MLS for their timeslot. Even the $Billions spent on CFB and CBK is not really a direct conflict. That league that is however a direct threat and conflict for resources is…MLB. I don’t remember whether it was 2021 or 2022, but ESPN, FOX, and TBS (the networks that are possible buyers for MLS since NBC said they weren’t interested) renewed for Major League Baseball for $2 Billion a year just for the National games. The seasons for MLS and MLB run almost exactly the same time frame. More than the competition for the National “Summer” dollars it is the local RSN dollars. The local contracts is where most of the MLB teams make their most money. The tenuous future of these RSNs are already seeing them tightening their shoe strings to concentrate their MLB, NBA, and NHL contracts that are less of a loss leaders. I hope I am wrong, but MLS ending their contracts with the RSN may be a mistake. If they (MLS) don’t find a better regional deal it is going to be hard for them to come back to the RSN’s. I have seen that with local colleges that were tired of how much Learfield sports took from their profits to broadcast all of their college sports. A few of them tried to break away and produce their own broadcasts. After a year they realized that they made even less profit producing their own shows and tried to come back to Learfiled…but were told no. I would hate to see that happen to MLS.

  2. Khalil Shahyd

    April 8, 2022 at 2:36 pm

    This is about major sports media being willing to partner with MLS.

    It’s difficult to compare MLS with other major leagues who grew WITH the growth of major sports media especially the 24hr sports media channels.

    Today, MLS is expected to do the marketing and viewer growth without the assistance of major sports shows selling the drama and building the brand (and stars) through sports debate and talk shows.

    Shows like Get Up or First Take don’t “cover” sports, they market them with their biggest partners being the NFL and NBA.

    MLS has to approach this not just as a tv deal, they have to approach this as building a partnership with networks and major sports talking heads who are willing to help market the league and see it grow.

    Right now, those partners don’t exist.

  3. Buckles

    April 7, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    I really hope FOX OR CBS bids bc MLS needs a partner that broadcast games over the air. If it becomes an exclusive cable property, the ratings will continue to crater. Maybe NBC will forget about 2012 and come back to MLS.

    • Footballer

      April 8, 2022 at 4:10 pm

      Very doubtful that will happen. They got enough football content with the Premier League and if you add the other American sports, the calendar is already tight with no room for MLF(S)

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