Back in January, it was reported by Sports Business Journal that ESPN and Fox were going to win the rights to the next MLS television contract. ESPN has been a television partner for MLS since the league’s launch in 1996. Fox’s MLS rights ended after the 2011 season when NBCSN took over their portion of the contract. Another update in February suggested that negotiations were still ongoing between MLS, ESPN, and Fox.
It’s now the middle of March and no deal has officially been announced between MLS and its prospective broadcast partners ESPN and Fox. At this point a simple question begins to arise.
What’s taking so long?
The ongoing negotiations between MLS and Fox/ESPN are an intriguing representation of the importance of this particular contract and the place of MLS on the current sports landscape. It’s no secret that MLS’s ratings are well behind other areas of growth for the league. Its average attendance has beaten the NBA and NHL but ratings are well behind the EPL. In many ways, finding a way to tap into a wider television audience is a final frontier for the domestic American soccer league. But in this next television contract there has to be a balance struck between the needs of MLS to grow its product and its present value to the networks.
This has proved to be a sticking point in the current negotiations.
Multiple sources have described the negotiating situation between MLS and the networks as “fluid” even at this late date. A deal is still very likely to get done and both Fox and ESPN expect to have a significant portion of the MLS/US Soccer contract from what we have been told. And yet, many of the specifics are still being negotiated in a lengthy process and a deal has not been signed.
In particular, we’ve heard that MLS’s conversations with Fox have ebbed and flowed in recent weeks. Fox has proposed putting several MLS games on Fox Sports 2 while the league has been less fond of the idea. Given the lack of high definition and limited distribution of FS2, it’s obviously not a preferred destination for anyone at the moment. As much as Fox management may wish for leagues to embrace Fox Sports 2 as a viable option, that isn’t currently the case. MLS is fighting to get as much prime real estate as they can when they come to the table. Fox is hoping to do all they can to get the best value for both their 24/7 upstart networks.
There’s also discussions ongoing about how Fox and ESPN would potentially split MLS rights including the MLS Cup and All-Star Game. A joint ESPN/Fox doubleheader is even a possibility for Sunday nights as MLS pursues a more consistent broadcast window for its matches.
But it’s not just MLS games that are involved here, it’s also the lucrative United States home World Cup qualifiers that may be the real pearl of this deal. The most lucrative of which is the USA-Mexico game in Columbus. Given that Fox has won the rights to the World Cup beginning with the women’s tournament in 2015, more international games are a high priority. However, international soccer is also a favorite property of ESPN President John Skipper. Even though ESPN lost the World Cup to Fox, Bristol still wants to maintain an active presence in international soccer through the European Championship and the USA and Mexican National Team.
Some kind of split of those international games between Fox and ESPN is anticipated by both sides, but just how they are is still up in the air. A more equal split between Fox and ESPN is expected after an era where ESPN has held all the major USMNT rights.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these negotiations is what happens if Fox and MLS continue to remain at an impasse. A deal has been in the works for months now, but still nothing is signed. Part of the reason may be due to MLS and current partner NBC going their separate ways early on in process. NBC has offered MLS network exposure as well as packaging games in doubleheaders with the EPL, providing a boost for ratings. MLS seems like a good long-term fit for NBCSN given their history building the NHL, but that relationship won’t materialize. The fact that NBC has been out of the running means that MLS has no second option to negotiate against as they discern programming options with ESPN and Fox.
Might there be an unexpected turn in negotiations at the 11th hour? Fox sublicensed EPL games to ESPN not so long ago – could there be an opportunity for ESPN to return the favor with MLS games in a unique arrangement? We’ve seen the two networks work together in a similar fashion as partners multiple times before (usually to the detriment of NBC). Will an agreement finally be signed that sees both ESPN and Fox make a significant investment in both US Soccer and MLS that makes all sides happy?
Right now there are still plenty of options available in this pivotal time for Major League Soccer. The new television contract represents not just more potential money for the league, but an opportunity to expand the league’s profile. It’s a deal MLS will be desperate to get right to lay the groundwork for future growth of the league. The longer negotiations continue, the more speculation will increase over the exact details of MLS’s television future.
Steve Lepore also contributed to this report.