Updated January 29, 2015: When the original deal was announced, ESPN and MLS stated that streaming of games not nationally televised would be run through ESPN3.com, with an additional over-the-top subscription plan for fans who don't have ESPN3 access. But the network and the league weren't able to make all of the necessary arrangements for that to happen in time for the 2015 season.
One of the biggest days in Major League Soccer's history finally arrived Monday, as the league and the U.S. Soccer Federation unveiled their newest joint broadcast deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision.
Speaking at a press conference in New York, MLS commissioner Don Garber hailed a deal that "represents the most comprehensive U.S. media rights arrangement in the history of soccer in our country."
It's no surprise to hear strong praise on a day like this, but what Garber said is not an overstatement.
The deal will run from 2015 through 2022. John Ourand and Chris Botta of the Sports Business Journal report that it will bring in a total of $720 million over the eight-year contract. ESPN and Fox will pay a combined $75 million a year, and Univision will pay $15 million a year.
Late Monday night, the New York Times' Richard Sandomir reported that Fox's specific share is "a bit more than $30 million a year." That would put ESPN's share at just under $45 million a year.
The three networks combined will put $90 million on the table each year. That's more than triple the current rights revenue of $27 million per year. As Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl pointed out on Twitter, that is $7 million more than what NBC is paying for each year of its historic deal with the English Premier League.
Garber is well aware of what that kind of money can do to boost MLS.
"It's a partnership that's going to elevate the domestic game to unprecedented heights, something that all of us have been working so hard to achieve," he said. "All these networks share our vision that MLS can become one of the top soccer leauges in the world, and that our men's national team can join the women's national team to regularly compete for World Cup championships."
Here is a summary of what each network will get in the new set of deals:
- At least 34 exclusive regular seaon broadcasts each year, almost all of which will air at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on Sundays on ESPN2, and digital rights to all of those broadcasts on all platforms and devices.
- Exclusive rights to online distribution for MLS games not nationally broadcast, via ESPN3.com (more on that below).
- Six MLS Cup playoff games that can be broadcast on any ESPN network.
- Alternating rights on a year-by-year basis with Fox for the MLS Cup Final and MLS All-Star Game. Garber said Monday that the schedule has not yet been determined.
- Spanish-language simulcasts of all ESPN MLS broadcasts on ESPN Deportes, except for the Cup Final and All-Star Game (Univision has those rights).
- Rights to distribute ESPN's games on ESPN International.
- Half of the U.S. men's national team home games each year and half of the U.S. women's national team game broadcasts, with rights to broadcast those games on ESPN International.
(A statement from the U.S. Soccer Federation said there will be approximately 10 men's games a year total, so each network will get five. The women's team's schedule is more flexible.)
- Rights to air MLS matches on games ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes Radio.
- A partnership with Soccer United Marketing, MLS' marketing arm, "to create new soccer events for fans," according to a statement from ESPN.
"You will see ESPN turn towards a real emphasis on the domestic game in the next eight years - we think this is the right time to drive it through," ESPN president John Skipper said. "You'll see us engaged in a whole new way with MLS. If you look at what they've done with new stadiums, with local support, we think the next thing to follow is going to be national television ratings."
ESPN has been placing that bet since MLS' founding in 1996. The ratings have not grown anywhere close to what people would like. But Skipper is a renowned soccer fan, and one of the strongest boosters of MLS and the U.S. national teams at ESPN's headquarters. He has had a direct and personal role in ensuring that American soccer holds a place of prominence in Bristol.
"We obviously make this deal because we are bullish on where this sport is going overall, and where the domestic league and the domestic teams are going," Skipper said. "It's a futures buy. We're buying, you know, pork bellies - we think they're going to become more valuable over time."
Skipper also hailed the spirit of cooperation between all the entities involved. ESPN and Fox are fierce rivals in bidding for other sports properties, but they have a history of working together on soccer. ESPN and Univision also have had a long relationship within the sport, thanks to their longtime work on the World Cup, U.S. national team games and MLS.
"I think it's kind of a new day, in some ways, in sports," he said. "We've got a lot of competitors, but in each individual sport we're becoming aware that sports tends to rise or fall together.... We've all agreed that we're going to try to work together to elevate this sport, particularly the domestic teams and leagues in this country."
- At least 34 exclusive regular-season broadcasts each year, almost all of which will air at 7:00 p.m. on Sundays on Fox Sports 1, and digital rights to all of those broadcasts on all platforms and devices. Every U.S. team is guaranteed to appear at least once per season. The "Soccer Night In America" branding from its previous deal will return.
(There is not a requirement that all games must be on Fox Sports 1, which means some games could air on the much-less-distributed Fox Sports 2. The league's press release says that games will air "primarily on Fox Sports 1." but that is not a contractual guarantee.)
- Rights to all MLS Cup playoff games not on ESPN (see above) or Univision (see below). If the current 15-game playoff structure holds, Fox should get six games outside of the Final.
- Alternating rights on a year-by-year basis with ESPN for the MLS Cup Final and MLS All-Star Game.
- Spanish-language simulcasts of all Fox Sports MLS broadcasts on Fox Deportes, except for the Cup Final and All-Star Game.
- Half of the U.S. men's national team home games each year and half of the U.S. women's national team broadcasts.
- Opportunities to air non-game MLS events such as the SuperDraft.
- Rights to air MLS matches on Fox Sports Radio.
"We've believed in your vision from the first day," Fox Sports co-president and chief operating officer Eric Shanks said. "The other partners believe in the vision as well: what the domestic league can do for the game that we believe in, and the U.S. national team... For the next eight years, we look forward to cementing the partnership and figuring out how to make this MLS ship rise as one, all together."
Fox is no stranger to MLS, of course, having aired games from 2003 to 2011. Among Garber's most direct remarks Monday was his statement that he was "very pleased to have Fox back in the fold."
Now the network's stakes are higher. In addition to its UEFA and CONCACAF Champions Leauge packages, Fox picks up the FIFA tournament contract and Germany's Bundesliga in 2015.
"We've already placed a big bet on the future with the World Cup," Shanks said. "We believe that this investment in MLS is an investment in what collectively we can do with the domestic league and the U.S. men's national team, and strategically for us what it means going forward with the U.S. men and women in the World Cup. We know that ths a deal for the future, not just right now."
Shanks also hit on a very particular point that has not gone unnoticed by MLS fans. In so many American sports and soccer leagues around the world, television bankrolls the strength of the league's on-field product. Now MLS is getting that treatment, with an expectation that the league will step up.
"We believe that the best way to support the U.S. men's national team is through a strong domestic league," he said. "To help the U.S. men's team consistently have the best players in the world, we want to keep them here at home. I think that this deal is one step towards being able to make that happen."
- At least 34 exclusive regular-season broadcasts each year, on Friday evenings at either 7:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. Eastern on UniMás.
- Between five and seven Friday doubleheaders on Univision Deportes on consecutive weeks in May and June, with two hours of ancillary programming around the games.
- A weekly MLS wrapup show on Sundays, and a condensed match of the week.
- Two exclusive MLS Cup Playoff game broadcasts.
- All U.S. men's national team home games.
- At least four U.S. women's national team games.
- An English-language commentary feed for all MLS and U.S. soccer games via the SAP button on your remote control.
- Digital rights to all MLS and U.S. national team games it airs, including an English-language audio option on all live game streams.
"Regardless of whether you are Hispanic of the first generation, the second generation [or] the third generation, soccer is in our DNA," Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez said. "We believe in the growth of the sport. We also believe that the owners are so smart that they are going to throw bigger amounts of money into the teams, and this is going to grow big-time, so we want to be part of that growth."
"Juan Carlos has made a commitment to our league and our federation in unprecedented ways," Garber said, adding that Hispanic fans make up 30 percent of the league's fan base.
U.S. Soccer Federation CEO Dan Flynn had the strongest comments about the importance of Univision's role.
"The third-generation fan doesn't only follow Mexico," Flynn said. "I think we have a real chance - if the product on the field continues to get better, if we continue to dominate in the CONCACAF region, and do better at the World Cup level - we have a real good chance, I think, of converting a larger percentage of Hispanic and Latino fans."
In total, there will be 102 exclusive MLS national broadcasts in the regular season, plus 10 more games shown on Univision Deportes, making a total of 112. This year, 94 of the regular season's 323 season's games are nationally broadcast. We don't know how many games there will be in the 2015 season, but adding 18 more nationally televised games is still a significant increase.
It is worth re-emphasizing the point that all nationally-televised MLS games in the deal will be on Fridays and Sundays. Over the course of the the current set of deals, there have been games on six different days of the week with 21 different start times. That won't happen anymore.
Most MLS games will continue to be on Saturdays. They will be scheduled by the clubs for local TV broadcasts and streaming on ESPN3.com.
This satisfies the demands of some club owners who sell more tickets on Saturdays than any other days of the week. Or, as the league's press release put it, the deal "preserves exclusive Saturday windows for club-controlled matches."
You get the idea.
It could well be that Univision, which last year had more viewers for the MLS Cup Final than ESPN, is taking the biggest step of all here. UniMás is an over-the-air channel in many cities, and adding an English audio feed will bring in soccer fans who had turned away because they don't speak Spanish.
It will also be important to find out just how that half-and-half split of U.S. national team games shakes out. World Cup qualifiers are one of the hottest properties in soccer media, especially the five Hexagonal round games. But you can't divide five games evenly, of course, so we'll have to wait see how the chips fall in the end.
That can come later, though. For now, the U.S. Soccer Federation has just as much reason to be pleased as MLS does.
"Today reflects the partnership that U.S. Soccer has with Major League Soccer," USSF CEO Dan Flynn said. "We are very, very pleased with our growth prospects, and we are thrilled to be working with Soccer United Marketing, with Major League Soccer and all of the owners in building the product on the field, and building our brands for the future."
As promised above, here's more on ESPN taking over out-of-market distribution rights for MLS games not nationally broadcast.
The games you now watch through MLS Live, the league's online streaming platform for games not nationally televised, are moving to ESPN3.com. The league expects more than 200 games each season to be shown this way.
In addition, the Direct Kick out-of-market TV package on cable and satellite platforms is also ending. Everything will be online now.
That is not as big of a loss as you might think. As Ourand and Botta note here, Direct Kick has far fewer subscribers than other leagues' TV packages.
As I reported Saturday, this was the last major hurdle in the negotiations of the deal. The digital rights to MLS broadcasts are of considerable value. For as much as the dramatic increase in rights money is a commitment to MLS on the field, it also sends a message about the league's potential to grow off the field.
Shifting all of this content to ESPN3 is an enormous step for the league to take, and one that has the potential to pay very big dividends. The platform will bring MLS games to the casual soccer fan - and indeed, the greater American sports fan base - in a way that will dramatically expand the league's exposure.
ESPN3 offers a wide range of sports content, most notably college football and basketball from the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and American Athletic Conferences. So if you're an Alabama or Rutgers football fan, or a Duke or Temple basketball fan, you've likely watched a game on ESPN3 at some point.
You've probably also watched plenty of other soccer content through ESPN3 over the years, such as UEFA World Cup and European Championship qualifying. Or if you're a tennis fan, you've watched ESPN3's multi-court coverage of the four grand slams and other tournaments year-round.
ESPN3 content is available free of charge with authenticated access through participating internet service providers.
(That is a different tier of service from WatchESPN, the online simulcasts of ESPN's linear TV channels, which requires authenticated access through participating pay-TV providers.)
Garber said in Monday's press conference that all ESPN3 subscribers will have access to MLS games. But there is also an awareness that some current MLS fans do not have ESPN3 access. I was told Monday, and SBJ later confirmed, that discussions have been ongoing for the possibility of an additional subscription-based service for those fans.
A press release issued a few hours after Monday's event announced that "over the coming months, MLS will work with ESPN to confirm the details of the out-of-market package, including the specific platforms on which it is offered, blackout restrictions, the availability of match archives, and potential pricing models."
The press release also stated that "ESPN3 does not require a cable subscription; any US-based MLS fan who wants the package will have access to it, regardless of internet provider." That first clause isn't true, as I wrote above, but it sounds like a deal will be worked out to open up special access to MLS games.
More details on how to access ESPN3 content, including a list of participating providers, are available here. In addition to being available via ESPN's website, ESPN3 has apps for iOS, Android and Windows 8 devices, Apple TV, Roku, Xbox Live and Amazon's FireTV.
As for what will happen to Canadian viewers who watch games online, the answer to that question came a few hours after the press conference. MLS Live will live on in Canada exclusively, continuing in its current form as a paid subscription service.
It's worth noting that MLS' Canadian national broadcast deal with Bell Media, owner of TSN and RDS, expires after the 2016 season.
To close, here are some words on one of the most significant things the new TV revenue will impact: MLS' upcoming collective bargaining negotiations with its players' union. The current CBA expires at the end of the 2014 season. When the two sides sit down at the table, they'll be joined by a big pot of cash. That will make a difference.
Garber was asked Monday whether the TV deal would lead to a significant increase in the salary cap. As you would expect, he mostly stuck to his political talking points in his answer. But even he had to concede that the money will be impossible to ignore.
My guess is the players probably will expect to see that. But let me start by saying, as you would expect, that the CBA negotiations haven't begun. The league, as I have stated many times, continues to operate at a deficit.
There have been positive developments, and our players have been part of partnering with us to grow the game. We'll sit down with them at the appropriate time, which will be soon, and share with them the condition of the league, including these positive developments.
I'm very confident we'll both have our heads in the right spot, and we'll work hard, and have difficult discussions, but I'm very hopeful that we'll reach a deal.