The new MLS TV contracts with ESPN, Fox, and Univision, are unmitigated good news for the league and its fans. MLS comes out of this deal looking like bandits. Some 18 months after NBC paid $83 million a year for the Premier League, MLS got $90 million a year for its less-popular league (and the USMNT). They got the fixed weekly television slots they’ve long been looking for. They got Univision to provide English audio. They got online streaming from ESPN. You could have made a wish list for the league before this deal and not created a set-up so rosy for the league.
Under the current TV contract, ESPN was showing 20-25 games a year during the regular season. That increases to a minimum 34 under the new deal, plus six playoff games. ESPN is the largest cable channel, and MLS needs a presence on it if the league hopes to grow. This is a good thing.
Fox Sports 1 takes over from NBCSN. I will be among those sad to see the latter go. I think NBC has done an excellent job with its coverage of both MLS and the Premier League, while Fox’s presentation of soccer has often been shoddy. Hopefully this will change. Fox gets the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and made no secret of their desire to increase soccer coverage around those big events. A healthy investment in MLS and US Soccer will hopefully be matched by an improvement in its broadcasts.
If you’re MLS, there are advantages to being on FS1. While they’ll probably miss the Premier League lead-ins provided this year by NBCSN, being on the same channel as the World Cup is huge. Fox will presumably advertise their MLS broadcasts during the UEFA Champions League, and, starting in 2015, the Bundesliga. This deal also reunites MLS coverage with that of the CONCACAF Champions League, which will hopefully boost that tournament’s profile.
As an MLS Live subscriber, I’m not thrilled to see it go away, as it likely will under this deal. But if you have cable, watching every MLS game will now be much cheaper. That can’t be a complaint. If there is a negative here, it’s for the “cord-cutters.” Where MLS Live was previously available without a cable subscription, online streaming may very well require cable in the future. But I think MLS gladly takes that if it means the increased exposure of its league via an already popular service such as ESPN3.
There are some fears that MLS is selling itself short. What happens if $90 million a year is cheap come 2018, and MLS is locked in for another four years? I’m less concerned. I’m an MLS optimist, but let’s be frank: the Premier League does better than double the viewers of MLS on NBCSN, despite being played in the morning. NBC pays $83 million a year for the Premier League, and right now MLS doesn’t come close to that value even with US Soccer included. The UEFA Champions League, which also does better than MLS, is said to be in the $50 million a year range in its contract with Fox. ESPN and Fox are overpaying for the current state of MLS in the hopes that they will underpay for the latter years of this deal.
What this tells you, then, is the importance of New York, Atlanta, and Miami. The league got a good chunk of money from those three expansions, but more importantly they improved their television base. Miami and Atlanta are two of the ten biggest television markets in this country, and previously they weren’t involved in MLS. It’s been a poorly kept secret that the league’s revenue streams are askew compared to the “big four” sports. Where the NFL and MLB rely heavily on TV money, MLS gets the majority of its revenue through game day attendance. This is a big step towards rectifying that fact.