Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Major League Soccer, ESPN "on the precipice" of a new rights deal

The main focus of ESPN's big gathering this past Friday was to preview the network's coverage of next month's World Cup. But a lot of the people who are headed from Bristol to Brazil are also closely involved with Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, ESPN “on the precipice” of a new rights deal

Alexi Lalas (left) and Taylor Twellman (right) are two of ESPN´s most prominent voices on Major League Soccer. (Photo courtesy of ESPN Images)
Alexi Lalas (left) and Taylor Twellman (right) are two of ESPN's most prominent voices on Major League Soccer. (Photo courtesy of ESPN Images)

NEW YORK - The main focus of ESPN’s big gathering this past Friday was to preview the network’s coverage of next month’s World Cup. But a lot of the people who are headed from Bristol to Brazil are also closely involved with Major League Soccer. So it was no surprise to hear a lot of chatter at the event about the fact that MLS’ negotiations for TV rights deals still have not been completed yet.

No one is talking publicly about what the hangups are. There have been rumors and things floated off the record, but none of what I’ve heard has been substantial enough to be printable.

For the people actively working on this deal, discretion is the better part of valor. That is understandable, even if it frustrates the public.

This much is clear: Whatever the deal ends up being, ESPN will continue its relationship with Major League Soccer, and has no intention of walking away.

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"We’ve been telling people for six months now, I think, that we’re on the precipice of getting a deal, and we are on the precipice of getting a deal," ESPN president John Skipper said. "It’s the longest I’ve ever been on a precipice, but we expect to be partners with Major League Soccer going forward."

Skipper and many others at ESPN are well aware that a joint deal between ESPN and Fox appeared to be all but completed. I reported in January that NBC Sports decided to end its relationship with MLS after one three-year contract, and that Fox would return to its old role as the network’s secondary broadcast partner alongside ESPN.

The deal was so close to being done that the Sports Business Journal was able to report on its value and length: $70 million a year for eight years.

But there still has been no official announcement. That has been a big talking point for many MLS observers this year, whether within the league, television networks or elsewhere in the community.

Early last week, I reported on a potential cause for the delay. Multiple sources told me that within the last month or two, there were renewed discussions between MLS and NBC about trying to extend their partnership.

After I floated that report out on Twitter, I heard back from some industry insiders that there were no such talks, or that if a conversation did happen, it never came to anything. Because of the strength of my sources, I stand by what I reported. But people I talked to Friday made it clear that MLS’ next round of TV deals will be with ESPN and Fox.

Those deals will start with the 2015 season, when New York City FC and Orlando City bring the number of teams in the league to 21.

ESPN senior vice president of programming Scott Guglielmino has been one of the key players in the network’s negotiations with MLS. Here’s what he told me about why MLS matters to ESPN:

We obviously have a very long-standing relationship with Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer, dating all the way back to the beginning of Major League Soccer. As we look to cover the entire sport, we obviously believe that a close relationship with our country’s first division, as well as its national team, is important.

That relationship on air and behind the scenes allows us to be aware of all those storylines that tie straight back to U.S. soccer and MLS, and certainly that will come forth this summer when we get into Brazil.

We’ve been talking to them for a while now and we think we’ve made a lot of progress. We certainly look forward to hopefully continuing our relationship.

All I’ll say is that obviously we have been working on it for a long time. It’s relatively complex, because you’re looking at multiple partners, you’re looking at a long-term deal.

And you’re looking at two different soccer properties, too, by the way - MLS and U.S. Soccer [national team games]. It has taken a little bit of time, but I think at the end of the day, certainly the end result will be something that I think MLS and U.S. Soccer will be able to build on, that’s for sure.

Executive producer Jed Drake also shared his thoughts on the same subject:

Our relationship with MLS is hugely important. All the time, we are interacting with them. We care a great deal about recognizing their importance to the growth of soccer in this country. We grow with them. There’s a great symbiotic relationship. The more that MLS grows and becomes more viable in this country, the better it is for us. We both work towards that commonality.

And when we see, now, players come back in to the fold - whether that’s [Michael] Bradley, whether that’s [Clint] Dempsey, and others - that’s a good thing. From Jurgen [Klinsmann]’s short-term perspective, it may not be the most desired thing to see them playing over here, but that’s Jurgen’s issue and he’ll deal with it. From our perspective, it’s great to see the continued growth of this league.

I have made a very big deal of the TV negotiations in my writing, and not just because it has become something of a beat for me. The money that comes from the next rights contract really will determine the future of Major League Soccer.

Every big American sport and every big soccer league on the planet is fueled by television revenue. If MLS is to rise in both those rankings, the money required can’t come just from the owners. Even the wealthiest among them can’t match the money television can bring to the table.

If you want to see a higher salary cap, more investment in academies, bigger rosters, or just about anything else that requires a significant amount of spending, the only place that money can come from is television.

Lalas has seen the impact that television revenue can have not only as a ESPN pundit, but in his previous life as a MLS club executive.

"If a broadcaster is going to pay a drastically higher rate, they are going to expect something in return," he told me. "I think it’s well within their right to expect to see that money be injected into the league and have tangible results of better players and higher-profile players. It’s fair to ask them to do that."

Twellman also addressed the issue at length, and he wasn’t afraid to be blunt. I will leave you with his remarks, and you can share your thoughts in the comment section below.

It’s the elephant in the room. Every other sport in our country has been able to spend the amounts of money that they can, why? Because of television. So Major League Soccer has to get television right. That’s the elephant, the one thing this league has to figure out, and it has to figure it out immediately.

Is some of it on the television rights-holders? Yes. The same [kickoff] times, more promotion, that stuff. The "four major professional sports" talk, that’s got to go. I get all that.

But on the other hand, if you’re a Major League Soccer fan, you can’t say you’re a Major League Soccer fan when you don’t watch the national broadcasts. How can you be a U.S. soccer fan and not be a Major League Soccer fan? Right? I’m asking that to the people. I don’t get it. 

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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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