MLS, Their New Media Rights Agreement & What’s To Come

Major League Soccer has had unprecedented growth in recent years. Yet despite so many strides forward that the league has made with franchise expansion, soccer specific stadiums, sponsorship agreements and an increasing number and valuation of DP signings, it still seemed as though the third revenue stream of professional sports, TV & Media contracts, was stuck in the 90s.  From production, to content, to scheduling, the whole televised platform of MLS detracted from the on field and physical progress that the league was making.

This however, should no longer be the case.  Yesterday, in a widely publicized press conference, Don Garber sat with US Soccer CEO and General Secretary Dann Flynn, ESPN President and Co Chairman of Disney Media Networks John Skipper, FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 General Manager and Chief Operating Officer David Nathanson and Univision Deportes President Juan Carlos Rodriguez and announced a major new TV and media rights deal that gulfs previous agreements in every facet.

Pertinent comment from SI writer Grant Wahl

Twitter comment from SI writer Grant Wahl – From Twitter @GrantWahl

The 8 year, $90 millon/year agreement more than triples the total $27 million/year that MLS was previously receiving and brings the total TV revenue over 8 years to $720 million.  Of that $90 million, Univision will pay $15 million while ESPN and Fox will make up the final $75 million.  Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald cites the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir who reports that Fox will pay “a bit more than $30 million” leaving a bit less than $45 million to ESPN.

MLS completes this landmark deal in the face of unstable ratings since 2007 and declining ratings since 2012. According to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand and Christopher Botta,the average number of viewers declined from 311,000 to 220,000 on ESPN/ESPN2 over 20 games, from 125,000 over 40 games to 112,000 over 37 games on NBCSN and from 521,000 over 4 games to 396,000 over 3 games on NBC all from 2012 to 2013.

Despite the numbers, ESPN’s John Skipper is confident moving forward and had this to say about MLS and the deal:

We obviously make this deal because we are bullish on where this sport is going overall, and where the domestic league and the domestic teams are going,”
also stating,
You’ll see (ESPN) engaged in a whole new way with MLS. If you look at what they’ve done with new stadiums, with local support, we think the next thing to follow is going to be national television ratings.”

 

NBC’s swoop for comprehensive Premier League rights and coverage pushed Fox and ESPN, normally sports content competitors, into collaborating in a bid, forcing NBC to back out of the bidding process back in January.

 

While draft pressers had been prepared as far back as January, according to SBJ, the details and smaller aspects of the deal were being negotiated up until recently.  Those details include out of market rights, highlight rights, as well as digital space, which covers those previously listed but also mobile app details, TV services such as Roku and Apple TV as well as the future of MLS Live.

 

Here are the digital rights according to MLS:
National Broadcasts

  • ESPN and ESPN2 broadcasts will be streamed via the WatchESPN app.
  • Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 broadcasts will be streamed via the FOX Sports GO mobile app and FOXSportsGO.com for desktops
  • Univision Deportes broadcasts will be streamed via Univision’s digital platforms and mobile apps.

Out-of-Market Package

  • The out-of-market package will provide HD-quality digital access to more than 200 games each season.
  • ESPN3 does not require a cable subscription; any US-based MLS fan who wants the package will have access to it, regardless of internet provider.
  • The package will be available via multiple over-the-top services (e.g. Apple TV, Roku, etc.).

In Canada

  • MLS will continue to provide access to hundreds of out-of-market games each year via the MLS LIVE package.

Additionally, MLS Digital will continue to provide the live “MatchCenter” as well as their standard suite of mobile apps and higlights to MLS fans across USA, Canada and globally.

MLS isn’t the only one to gain form this deal.  The agreement sees a half of the games each year played by the US Men’s National Team broadcast by Fox, the other half broadcast by ESPN while Univision will broadcast all home games.  This also includes a similar deal with the US Women’s National Team.

This is truly a landmark deal.  Beyond the money involved, it takes MLS to a whole new digital level with ESPN3 creating massive growth potential for the brand as well as viewership while MLS continues to drive its brand in the Spanish speaking market. The deal also establishes a more consistent national programming regimen with each each TV partner featuring an exclusive game of the week as well as a double header on Sunday, all of which never previously existed in MLS.

 

Combine these factors with the capability to run a multi-platform cross promotional marketing initiatives that will include”tune-in campaigns, digital content and shoulder programming, social media marketing and integration of MLS and U.S. Soccer stars” and the image of MLS as a brand, as a league, and as a viable source of popular television content to service providers becomes transformed with even more growth potential.

 

Here are the specific details for each broadcaster according to MLS:

 

ESPN Networks

  • Minimum of 34 regular season games, on an exclusive basis, on Sundays at 5 p.m. ET primarily on ESPN2.
  • ESPN and FOX Sports will share MLS Cup Playoff matches outside of the two Univision games.
  • MLS Cup will alternate each year between ESPN and FOX Sports 1.
  • The AT&T MLS All-Star Game will alternate each year between ESPN and FOX Sports 1.
  • ESPN and FOX Sports will split all U.S. Soccer matches.
  • ESPN3 will carry the matches in MLS’ out-of-market package.
  • ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes Radio networks have the rights to broadcast MLS matches.
  • ESPN obtains digital rights across all platforms and devices for the games it televises.

FOX Sports

  • Minimum of 34 regular season games, on an exclusive basis, on Sundays at 7 p.m. ET primarily on FOX Sports 1.
  • FOX Sports 1 and ESPN will split MLS Cup Playoff matches outside of the two Univision games.
  • MLS Cup will alternate each year between FOX Sports 1 and ESPN.
  • The AT&T MLS All-Star Game will alternate each year between FOX Sports 1 and ESPN.
  • FOX Sports obtains digital rights across all platforms and devices for the games it televises, including its FOX Sports GO mobile app and FOXSportsGO.com for desktops.
  • FOX Sports obtain digital highlight rights for MLS’s out-of-market package via FOX Sports digital platforms.
  • ESPN and FOX Sports 1 will split all U.S. Soccer matches.
  • FOX Sports Radio network has the opportunity to broadcast MLS matches.

Univision

  • Minimum of 34 regular season games, on an exclusive basis, on Friday evenings usually at 7 p.m. ET or 11 p.m. ET, primarily on UniMás.
  • Two MLS Cup Playoff matches per season, on an exclusive basis, during the knockout round.
  • The AT&T MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup, exclusively in Spanish on Univision.
  • All U.S. Soccer Men’s National Team matches, including a minimum of four U.S. Women’s National Team matches each year over the term.
  • Exclusive MLS matches on the Univision networks will include Second Audio Program (SAP), providing viewers the option of watching games in English.  English audio also will be available for matches televised on Univision’s digital platforms.
  • Univision Deportes Network (UDN), Univision’s 24-hour sports network, will feature 5-7 consecutive Friday doubleheaders in May and June that will be surrounded by two hours of MLS ancillary programming.
  • UDN will televise a weekly Sunday MLS wrap-up program and a condensed MLS match of the week.
  • Univision obtains digital rights across all platforms and mobile devices for the games it televises.
Reporting on the business side of the world's game.