Thursday, October 23, 2014
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NBC to end MLS deal in 2015; ESPN, Fox pay $70 million per year for new rights package

Updated Friday afternoon with a report of the rights fee value.

NBC to end MLS deal in 2015; ESPN, Fox pay $70 million per year for new rights package

Fox Sports has been grooming veteran broadcaster Gus Johnson (second from left) to be the lead voice for its 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup broadcasts. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images)
Fox Sports has been grooming veteran broadcaster Gus Johnson (second from left) to be the lead voice for its 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup broadcasts. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images)

Updated Friday afternoon with a report of the rights fee value.

Goal.com's Ives Galarcep reported Thursday evening that NBC Sports will not be part of the next round of television deals for Major League Soccer and U.S. national team rights, which begin in 2015.

I can confirm from my own sources, which first told me about this weeks ago, that Galarcep's report is correct. I was asked by almost all of those sources to hold off reporting the information, because as recently as a few days ago, the negotiations weren't finished yet.

I don't know if they are done as of now, but if it's to the point where there's a published report, then I'm guessing talks are pretty close to complete. So I will tell you what I have been able to confirm so far.

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It's my understanding that ESPN will continue to be the primary English-language rightsholder for MLS and U.S. Soccer. They will, from everything I've heard, be joined by Fox Sports. This means NBC's participation will have lasted just one rights cycle. Fox had the rights from 2003 to 2011, and now is getting them back.

NBC sincerely wanted to keep its relationship with MLS going. I've written that before, and I know it continues to be true. The network put in a considerable effort to have as many MLS-Premier League doubleheaders as possible in 2014, and to cross-promote MLS on an equivalent level with the EPL.

But that won't last past this year. I've been told that NBC ended talks over extending its relationship without the network making a formal offer for a new deal.

In a statement issued Friday, NBC offered a gracious farewell: "We've enjoyed our partnership with MLS. Don Garber and his team are building something very positive, and we wish them well."

That statement was published by the Sports Business Journal's John Ourand and Chris Botta in this story. You should read it, because it has a lot of good information.

Now for the other big thing that everyone wants to know about the new deal: how much money is involved.

Ourand and Botta reported that the combined rights fee from ESPN and Fox will be around $70 million per year. That would represent a dramatic increase over the approximately $27 million per year in the current deals held by ESPN ($8 million), NBC ($10 million) and Univision ($9 million).

The $27 million figure does not include any rights fee paid by Bell Media in Canada to broadcast games nationally on TSN in English and RDS in French. I do not know what that deal is worth, in part because it has a few layers to it. In addition to a national package, Bell has separate local broadcast deals with all three Canadian teams.

For now, let's just deal with the numbers that we have. Compare ESPN and Fox paying $70 million per year combined to the $18 million ESPN and NBC are currently paying. The new annual revenue from just the U.S. English-language contract would be nearly four times as big as the current number.

If the new annual rights fee really does end up at $70 million, that would give each MLS team in a 21-team league (as will be the case in 2015) up to 3.3 million per year. When MLS' expansion wave finishes at 24 teams, each team will get up to 2.9 million per year. And you can add a few dollars for Spanish rights and Canadian rights along the way.

There is a significant caveat to those numbers, however. Because the rights deal is for both MLS and U.S. national team games, some of the money will go to the U.S. Soccer Federation. That has been the case for past contracts too.

We haven't known the exact split in the past, and I'm sure we won't this time. But I wouldn't worry about MLS getting shortchanged. After all, we are talking about a near-quadrupling in value of this contract, That is, for lack of a better way to put it, a pretty big deal.

(The new national Spanish-language contract will also be split between MLS and U.S. Soccer. The national Canadian deal is only for MLS games, however, so the league gets all of that money.)

It's also very likely - I'd say certain, but let's wait until the deal is announced - that Fox and ESPN will get the rights to air their national games on their respective Spanish-language networks, Fox Deportes and ESPN Deportes. You might also see games broadcast internationally on Fox and ESPN networks worldwide, as ESPN already does.

The last key part of the deal is its duration. Ourand and Botta reported that the package could run for as long as eight years. If that is the final agreement, it would guarantee MLS coverage on Fox through the full duration of its FIFA contract.

That is of particular consequence to Fox.

You all know that Fox will take over FIFA rights from 2015 through 2022. That includes the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Because MLS television rights are purposely packaged with U.S. national team home game rights, Fox will get the latter too. 

I'll be particularly interested to see how national team rights will be divided. Most important of all will be whether home World Cup qualifiers - for which ESPN has held English-language rights exclusively since the 1980's - will now be split between the two networks. I do not know if that will happen, but I've heard it may have been discussed at one point.

(Road games are not part of the deal because each national federation controls its own broadcast rights. This is why beIN Sport aired most of the U.S.' road World Cup qualifiers - it struck a deal for them with the main rights-holder, Traffic Sports.)

It's my understanding new set of deals might not be broken out into "primary" and "secondary" packages, as MLS has done with the past. It's likely that the two deals will be closer to equal.

I also do not know if the new deal will have a formal stipulation for the split of games between Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. The latter channel does not have as wide distribution as the former, and some networks that do carry FS2 don't have it in high definition.

Obviously, that could change between now and the start of the 2015 season, but the distinction will not be lost on American soccer fans.

With regard to online rights, my understanding is that negotiations over how those will work may still be ongoing. The easy part is that ESPN and Fox will stream their respective games through their respective authenticated platforms, WatchESPN and Fox Sports Go.

As for non-national games, there have been some rumors about changes to how those get distributed online, but I have been told by multiple sources that nothing has been officially settled yet. 

It's possible, and maybe even likely, that the deal will be formally announced next week when the MLS community gathers at the SuperDraft. We'll see if that comes to pass.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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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.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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