Major League Soccer and the NBC Sports Group announced earlier today that they have entered into a three-year deal that will see 45 MLS matches and four U.S. Men's National Team matches broadcast across NBC and Versus (soon to be known as the NBC Sports Network) a year starting in 2012. NBC will replace Fox Soccer Channel as the league's secondary national English broadcast partner in a move that is sure to excite everyone involved in MLS: its Commissioner and league office, its teams, its sponsorship partners and, perhaps most importantly, its fans. In all, each year NBC Sports Network will broadcast 38 regular season matches, three playoff matches and two USMNT matches, while NBC will broadcast two regular season matches, two playoff matches and two USMNT matches.
This is truly a landmark agreement for Major League Soccer that SportsBusiness Daily's John Ourand reports is worth $10 million per year -- which is a significant increase over the $6.25 million that Fox Soccer is paying this year to broadcast about ten fewer matches, and the $8.5 million that ESPN pays per year to broadcast about 20 fewer matches. But, of course, the most important factor in this deal is not related to the financials (although those are certainly important), but the exposure that this deal will provide MLS and its teams. It's no secret that Fox Soccer has been run on a rather shoestring budget since its launch -- all you have to do is turn on the channel and that much is obvious. NBC and NBC Sports Network provide a much, much more well known platform for MLS, and one that is seen in so many more homes. Fox Soccer is in about 39 million homes (many of whom are paying several dollars a month extra to receive it -- and not in HD), while Versus/NBC Sports Network is currently in about 76 million homes and rising. Of course, ESPN and ESPN2 are in well over 100 million homes, and NBC is in just about every home in this country with a television, but the instant jump in available viewers is huge just the same.
Perhaps more importantly, now that Versus/NBC Sports Network is under the control of NBC, they will use their broadcast of the Summer Olympics in London next summer to further catapult NBC Sports Network into additional homes. What cable or satellite provider wants to start hearing it from their customers when they can't watch some of the Olympics because it's on a channel from a brand they recognize (NBC) they don't get? Looking a little further down the road, as NBC's carriage deals with cable and satellite providers begin to near their expiration date and new negotiations begin, you better believe that NBC is going to make sure that NBC Sports Network is in every single home (and on the same basic packages) that CNBC, MSNBC, USA, Bravo, and their other major cable channels are.
This is NBC's latest part in their push to create a true competitor to ESPN. In addition to renaming Versus to NBC Sports Network, NBC and the NHL entered into a substantial 10-year, $2 billion deal for national broadcast and cable rights, is rumored to be on the brink of announcing a NCAA college hockey deal, and is reported to be a frontrunner for a Thursday night NFL package that they would air on NBC Sports Network. If not being able to watch some of the Olympics on their basic cable package wasn't enough to get customers who don't get NBC Sports Network to complain, you better believe that not being able to watch their NFL team's game will get them to find their pitchforks.
As part of this partnership, there will be pre- and post-game coverage for every single match on NBC and NBC Sports Network, something that Fox Soccer generally does, but not always. A minor question here is whether the pre- and post-game coverage for NBC telecasts would be on NBC itself or on NBC Sports Network, and the answer is that it's likely to be the latter, but the most important thing is that there is some amount of ancillary coverage and not just a quick sign-off right after the final whistle. NBC telecasts for regular season, playoff and USMNT coverage will take place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as with NHL and other NBC Sports properties.
The league's previous contract with Fox Soccer expired after last season, and there were reports that there were initial discussions with NBC Sports to replace Fox Soccer starting this season, but the timing was simply not right. It was way too close to the season for NBC to hire announcers, producers, studio analysts, not to mention coordinating travel for their crews and all of their equipment, and, perhaps more importantly, Comcast's acquisition of NBC had just been approved, so NBC Sports already had way too many things on their plate at the time in terms of figuring out how to integrate two multi-billion dollar businesses as soon as possible to add MLS. So, Fox Soccer was brought back into the fold on a makeshift one-year deal for more than twice what they had been paying before. As we speculated when Fox Soccer's deal was announced on February 18, though, MLS and NBC realized in their discussions that a deal could work out very well for both sides and that it should be revisited when both sides have a little more available time on their schedules. MLS gets increased exposure, and Versus/NBC Sports Network exponentially increases its summer programming from roughly 0 hours of live coverage outside of the Tour de France to over 129 hours of live soccer coverage.
What happens to Fox Soccer? Well, they've announced that they're going to 'relaunch' just three days from now (not a coincidence) and will now have to focus on increased Premier League, Serie A, USL and WPS coverage. It turns Fox Soccer from a channel that is struggling to place itself in the mainstream to a channel that is going to have to accept the fact that is a niche channel. Can they succeed this way? There's certainly a large (and growing) desire to watch Premier League matches, though ESPN seemingly continues to increase their coverage on a yearly basis, and they'll just have to hope that any MLS fans who only subscribed to Fox Soccer because of their MLS coverage won't unsubscribe en masse. One would suspect that many of those fans who are forced to purchase the channel on top of their cable or satellite package will strongly consider it, which is not good for Fox Soccer.
Who will become the faces of MLS on NBC? Well, we don't know the contract lengths of ESPN or Fox Soccer's current broadcasters, but it seems likely enough that NBC will do what it can to bring in Union play-by-play announcer J.P. Dellacamera as its lead voice, and perhaps try to hire Dynamo play-by-play announcer Glenn Davis away from ESPN to be a secondary voice (Dellacamera is in the second year of a three-year contract with the Union, but of course he was able to continue his work with ESPN last year and be the primary voice of MLS and the USMNT on Fox Soccer this year). Will NBC try to bring in Union color analyst Taylor Twellman, who deserves more time on ESPN's broadcasts? Or how about Seattle's excellent Arlo White, or Sporting KC's up-and-coming Callum Williams? Perhaps Portland's John Strong? Will Alexi Lalas be given an opportunity to move from his current studio role to a role in the booth? Adrian Healey and John Harkes are very well entrenched in ESPN, as evidenced by their involvement in almost all ESPN soccer coverage, ranging from MLS to FIFA World Cup broadcasts, and of course so is Ian Darke, who is primarily stationed in England for Premier League coverage (though he will be calling tonight's USMNT-Mexico match at Lincoln Financial Field), so they're off the table. Maybe NBC will bring in a full-time play-by-play announcer and analyst and use people like Dellacamera and Davis as spot announcers for any doubleheaders, as, on the surface, it seems to be a logistical nightmare to try to bring in part-time announcers for so many telecasts.
This is a mammoth agreement for MLS, and assuming ratings fall within whatever metrics they've devised with NBC, it puts the league in an interesting position come 2014, when both the NBC and ESPN deals expire. If the league feels like both partners are continuing to help grow the league, it could have them compete against each other to drive up the value, or, if one partner is working out substantially better and shows a much greater interest than the other, the league could consider going all-in like the NHL. And, now that they're involved in soccer, would NBC consider bidding for post-2014 World Cup broadcast rights? One would think that given how successful ESPN has been both in terms of quality and in terms of viewership on both the men's and women's side that they wouldn't want to let those go, but you never know.
No matter how you look at this deal, though, whether from a short-term or long-term perspective, it's a very, very positive step for MLS and for soccer in this country.