As Major League Soccer enters its sixteenth season, it is reaching an impasse. In the last two years, it has added teams in large markets with Seattle and Philadelphia. This year, it adds two more major markets in Portland and Vancouver, and is scheduled to bring in Montreal for 2012. Average attendance across the league continues to slowly but steadily increase. But its position in what has become the most important venue in the history of professional sports, television, leaves much to be desired, and there appears to be no easy solution.
In this four part series, we will discuss (a) the current state of Major League Soccer on television in the United States nationally, (b) the current state of Major League Soccer's regional broadcasts (c) what should be the ultimate end goal for MLS, regardless of whether that takes place five years in the future, thirty years in the future, never or next month and (d) how to get from the current position to the end goal.
After the jump, we'll dive in head first into the status of national MLS television deals.
As you well know, MLS matches have been shown nationally in English across the ESPN family of networks (including ABC at various times) since the league's inception, and on Fox Soccer Channel since 2003. The league also has longstanding broadcast deals with Univision and its sub-channels Galavisión and TeleFutura to broadcast MLS matches nationally in Spanish. On a given week, ESPN will usually air a Thursday or Friday night match while Fox Soccer Channel will air either one or two matches throughout Saturday or Sunday night. TeleFutura holds exclusive Spanish rights to one regular season match per week on Saturday afternoon at 4 PM Eastern time, but because they only hold the exclusive Spanish rights to that match, the two teams involved in the match are allowed to air local broadcasts in English; the match is still considered "nationally-televised," however, and is not available on the league's DirectKick or MatchDay Live packages. When the playoffs begin, each and every postseason match is televised by one of the league's national partners. ESPN picks up two of the four opening round series, while Fox Soccer Channel and TeleFutura each pick up one (like with regular season TeleFutura telecasts, they only hold exclusive rights for Spanish, so the regional broadcasters of the two teams involved are allowed to pick up the English rights in their teams' markets for the two matches in the series), with Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN each exclusively televising a Conference Final match and ESPN and TeleFutura televising that year's MLS Cup. As a quick sidenote, the CBC and GolTV Canada do have deals with MLS, but they have more to do with airing Toronto FC matches than trying to provide national MLS coverage, though that may change with the welcoming of Vancouver and soon Montreal, and that will be discussed in detail in a future segment of this series. Along the same lines, it should be noted that TSN in Canada televises MLS Cup and GolTV Canada picks up the MLS All-Star Game.
The league's contract with ESPN pays them an average of $8.5 million per year through 2014, and includes rights to many U.S. Men's National Team matches. It's probably fair to say that despite declining ratings on ESPN, MLS commissioner Don Garber is very happy with the amount of exposure his league gets even through its small amount of coverage across the network. Univision's contract with the league also ends in 2014. The league's contract with Fox Soccer Channel, though, which has been paying the league at a rate of $3 million per year, expired at the end of the 2010 season.
As much as ratings have flatlined, if not dropped, over the past couple of seasons, MLS is not without options. Fox Soccer Channel, which is not a standard cable station nationwide, has what can only be described as a sub-par production quality on their telecasts. In fact, it's probably not unreasonable to call them a Mickey Mouse operation. Most of their viewership on a weekly basis comes from rebroadcasting British feeds of English Premier League matches on the weekends, and their HD coverage is spotty, to say the least. In fact, to get Fox Soccer Channel on Comcast cable systems requires subscribing to a $6 per month package, and even then you don't get the channel in HD.
During negotiations, Fox has reasonably offered to increase their annual fee to $7 million per year, but according to SportsBusiness Journal's John Ourand, MLS is trying to up the ante to $20 million a year, which would be far and away the league's most valuable media deal in its relatively short history. Why does MLS feel comfortable effectively giving Fox an ultimatum? Two reasons: Fox's relative lack of programming during the EPL and UEFA offseasons, and the threat of Versus swooping in and purchasing this package of games away from Fox (threat is the key word here).
First, to anyone who has ever watched Fox Soccer Channel, you know all too well that their issues do not need to be explained. But if you haven't, it's important to note that, as stated above, most of Fox Soccer Channel's viewership comes from its rebroadcasting of UEFA Champions League fixtures on weekdays and Sky's English Premier League telecasts on weekends. This programming conveniently starts to wind down for the season just as the MLS season begins, and likewise, the MLS season starts to wind down just as EPL and UEFA action begins to pick up again. So everything is in harmony at Fox, in a sense. If one of those cogs in MLS suddenly disappears, Fox has a serious problem. They've tried original programming a couple of times in the past (the most recent was Soccer Talk Live, a live show hosted by Union color commentator Kyle Martino, that, frankly, looked like it was being filmed for public access and had a lifespan of weeks, not months or years), and while 30-minute programs with UEFA highlights from the previous year provide decent entertainment, a TV channel they do not make. MLS is key to the continued success of Fox Soccer Channel.
While for many months it appeared Versus was highly interested in legitimately bidding, Ourand reports that, to this point, there hasn't been much more than preliminary talks between the Comcast-owned station and the league. To be sure, a deal with Versus would have be a boon for a league that is struggling to provide a legitimate image of itself to the American people. It is certainly still possible, of course, that the two sides will be able to come to terms, and we will weigh the effect a potential deal would have on both sides in a future installment of this series. Either way, MLS can use and twist Versus's interest, even if minimal, to help force Fox basically bid against itself and drive up yearly its promised yearly royalties to MLS.
So where does this leave Major League Soccer from a national television perspective? With two partners in ESPN and Univision who are becoming more and more disappointed in the ratings of their MLS telecasts with each passing year (but don't appear to be terribly upset about it -- American soccer is a big deal for both networks and both recognize it as a long-term investment) and a third partner in Fox Soccer Channel who provides sub-par coverage to MLS fans and is also disappointed with ratings, and is now potentially on the brink of not showing MLS telecasts for the first time since 2003. Hmph. Up next in this series, we will discuss the state of local television coverage of MLS. I'll give you a bit of a preview: things look kind of similar -- not terrible by any stretch, but at the same time not all roses.