Major League Soccer’s national TV rights are up after the 2022 season, and while the league has hoped for a windfall, it might only receive a reasonable increase.
Per a report from The Athletic, three of the expected major players (CBS, current rightsholder Fox, and former rightsholder NBC) “have not shown much – if any – interest” in MLS rights. Turner Sports, also rumored as a suitor, is interested and has held talks with the company, but is currently held up by the WarnerMedia/Discovery merger. ESPN and Univision, both current rightsholders along with Fox, are at the table, “though neither appears to be interested in offering a paradigm-shifting deal.”
The national MLS TV rights lag not only behind the four major US sports, but also several college conferences, NASCAR, and both the Premier League ($450 million per season starting this fall) and La Liga ($175 million per season). The Athletic’s sources muse that the new MLS TV deals will land somewhere between $150 million and $200 million – in the same range as La Liga and ahead of Serie A and the Bundesliga, but far from the heights set by the Premier League.
One piece of good news is that MLS won’t lose a chunk of their annual rights fee to US Soccer, which sold its rights to WarnerMedia on an eight-year deal earlier this month. That means more money for MLS and its teams, but the league’s wild expansion over the last decade (going from 20 teams in 2016 to 29 in 2023) will cut the size of each team’s slice of the national TV cash pie.
MLS is also having issues with the Leagues Cup and local games. Last fall’s announced expansion of the Leagues Cup put a whole lot of extra games on the market, and MLS and Liga MX expected that the added inventory would help improve bidding. It hasn’t really worked that way – The Athletic says there is “little interest” in the English rights for the Leagues Cup, with ESPN potentially interested if they could also snare the Spanish language rights, but Univision is far more invested in acquiring those rights.
As for the non-national games, MLS reportedly instructed its teams not to sign local TV deals past the 2022 season, with the aim of packaging all of its games together. The plan would be to have one broadcast for each match, as opposed to home and away broadcasts, per The Athletic.
The sources said that MLS has considered having just one commentary team for each of those matches. Such an arrangement would bring an end to the current model for non-nationally televised matches in which both the home and away team produce their own broadcast and have their own commentators.
ESPN, which absorbed the MLS Live package into ESPN+ in 2018, “would consider” retaining all those extra games, but doesn’t seem keen on an elevated rights fee for those matches. Any network potentially in the running for the non-national matches doesn’t appear interested in taking control of the production of those matches, raising another issue with the league’s plan.
The main rub here appears to be this: MLS is in line for an increase, but not nearly as large as they expected. The bidding war the league anticipated isn’t coming to fruition, and the legions of extra games that are available to national TV partners aren’t drawing all that much interest.
This isn’t the best outcome for MLS, but it could be far worse.