USL and CBS Sports have announced a new broadcast deal that could be a big shakeup on the domestic soccer scene.
The multi-year agreement through 2027 will see 100 matches each year from the United Soccer League’s USL Championship and League One divisions featured on CBS Sports platforms through the 2027 season. Expectations are that ESPN is likely to acquire the remainder of the games that CBS Sports is not broadcasting.
USL and CBS broadcasting deal: the details
This new deal is almost certainly the biggest of its kind ever for a US lower division league.
Here’s the breakdown:
- 100 total games each season (2024-2027) on CBS Sports Platforms
- 20+ games each year on CBS Sports Network
- Select games, including Championship Final on the main CBS Television Network (simulcast on Paramount+)
- 75 games on CBS Sports Golazo Network
- USL analysis and commentary on Golazo Network studio shows, as well as on the CBS Sports website, newsletter, and social accounts
CBS Sports, of course, is no stranger to broadcasting soccer in the US. With long-term rights to UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and Conference League headlining their stable of properties, they’ve become a leader in big-time soccer. Add to that Serie A, the Argentine and Brazilian leagues, CONCACAF Nations League, NWSL, FA Women’s Super League, Scottish Premiership, AFC Champions League, and more, and USL is joining a robust lineup.
CBS also dabbled in the domestic game in 2023, jumping on coverage of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with select games on Golazo, Paramount+, and CBS Sports Network.
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A deeper look into the deal
Interestingly, the official release of the deal had a few notable omissions.
For one, it did not mention what the situation will be for the remainder of league matches not coverage by the CBS deal, only noting “Additional coverage details for the 2024 USL season will be announced in the coming weeks.” In recent years, every single USL Championship and League One match had been available on ESPN+ (except the league finals, which were on ESPN2).
Reports indicate a second deal with ESPN may be in the cards, so this is definitely something to watch. The combined revenue between both deals could be in the “mid-to-high seven figures” range annually.
How the league and/or individual clubs present the balance of games will be crucial in how the overall match-viewing experience will be received. This is especially true for fans, as a large number of domestic soccer fans tend to watch mostly their own club.
In addition, no mention was given of the USL Super League. The upcoming women’s division one professional league is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2024. The league just this past weekend unveiled its first two club brands – Tampa Bay Sun FC and Spokane Zephyr FC. Notably, the NWSL – the existing Division One women’s league – recently announced their new broadcast deal that includes CBS and ESPN among the partners.
Further, while unrelated to broadcasting, the press release specifically mentions new clubs Rhode Island FC (USLC) and Spokane Velocity (USL1) for 2024. It does not mention Santa Barbara Sky, which had been slated to start in League One in 2024.
What this means for USL fans – and American soccer
First and foremost, an American lower division soccer league securing a multi-year broadcasting deal with a major media outlet is a sensational bellwether for the growth of the sport in the country. Just two decades ago even the World Cup was having trouble finding a home on US television. Ten years ago lower division matches were low-budget, sketchy streams with widely varying quality depending on who the home team was.
This is a BIG deal.
In fact, another way we can measure the positive growth of the game is that some fans might actually be upset about this deal. Why? Because instead of every game in one place, now they’ll have to navigate multiple platforms to see every match. The fact that people actually care about this, for lower division games, is terrific.
More reach, but potentially more confusing to follow
A big positive for fans is that the 75 games on the CBS Sports Golazo Network are completely free. The 24/7 soccer streaming network is available on platforms like Pluto TV and the Roku Channel, the CBS Sports App, and CBSSports.com. Anyone with a mobile device, computer, or smart TV can watch these games with no added cost.
Golazo of course is also built right into Paramount+. Paramount+ does cost a subscription fee, but many fans already have the service for other soccer coverage and/or TV shows and movies. It also happens to be only $5.99/month for the basic plan, which does include all of the live soccer.
With ESPN+’s ever-increasing price point, moving many games to a totally free platform is great. The reach achieved by having the Championship Final and potentially other games over-the-air on the main CBS channel is a big get. A huge slate of games available for free, plus major network coverage, is a big play for the league – but more on that in a minute.
But the CBS Sports Network games are more problematic. The network is in many areas only available on premium cable or satellite plans. Sometimes it may not be carried at all. NWSL had its 2023 semifinals, and several games throughout the season, exclusively on the network while most of the other games had been on Paramount+. Speaking from experience as a fan, this can be frustrating.
A different direction than the competition – MLS
In 2023, Major League Soccer made waves by launching MLS Season Pass. The league’s comprehensive streaming platform certainly streamlined watching games. Every league match is available everywhere, which is great.
However, it comes at a cost. MLS Season Pass is the most expensive streaming service that offers soccer in the US. And it only offers the MLS-related properties of MLS, Leagues Cup, and MLS NEXT Pro. A handful of games are available on Apple TV for free, and around 30 games are televised on FOX Sports networks. But local TV broadcasts no longer exist, so the league has largely retreated from the view of the casual sports fan.
By tying in with CBS Sports, and potentially also re-upping with ESPN, USL is opening themselves up to a broader audience.
Assuming the bulk of USL league games remain on ESPN+ (now $10.99/month), that’s still a big value compared to MLS Season Pass ($14.99/month for non-Apple TV+ subscribers). ESPN+, remember, has all of the Bundesliga and La Liga, the FA Cup, League Cup, and a bunch of other soccer (including some NWSL games from 2024 onwards). That’s not even mentioning the avalanche of non-soccer pro and college sports on the platform.
And USL teams can still craft individual local broadcast deals in their own markets. Casual sports fans are substantially more likely to stumble on a USL game than an MLS match.
SoccerWarz on two fronts
Where USL and MLS are in direct competition is in the third-division space. USL League One and MLS NEXT Pro operate at the same level on the pyramid. And they are no doubt in competition for markets and owners. Former NASL side Jacksonville Armada recently announced a move to MLS NEXT Pro for 2025. Meanwhile, a Jacksonville USL group is planning a launch in the area in the coming years as well.
MLS NEXT Pro games are featured as part of MLS Season Pass. But how much, if any, of that 10-year $2.5 billion deal will see its way to independent organizations like Jacksonville playing in the MLS minor league setup? Will supposed stability (RIP Rochester Rhinos) and the association with MLS be enough to entice prospective owners?
USL offering decent broadcasting revenue through this CBS (and potentially ESPN) deal could be something to help tip the scales in their favor on the lower division expansion front.
USL is kicking around the idea of promotion and relegation, and now has one perhaps two, major broadcasting deals. One has to wonder if eventually taking a shot at becoming a direct competitor to MLS, as the NASL attempted, is in the cards for USL. Foolish or not, they are certainly better equipped at the moment to make such a challenge than the NASL ever was.
And they’ve already stepped into the division one game on the women’s side with the Super League effort. Where the USL women’s league ends up in terms of broadcasting will be an interesting story to follow as well. Will NWSL’s upcoming deal with CBS, ESPN, Amazon, and Scripps preclude the Super League from sharing the same broadcasters as USL men’s counterparts? We’ll have to wait and see.
A step in the right direction
In any case, the USL-CBS deal is another big move for the league. While things have greatly evolved and improved in the 21st century, it’s still not easy for lower-division clubs in the USA. Just this fall, USL’s San Diego Loyal is closing up shop in advance of MLS coming to town. USL has lost eight clubs since 2018 (with six folding outright and two moving to MLS).
This broadcasting deal hopefully makes true sustainability for lower division sides a little closer to becoming a reality.
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