Musing on MLS, online media rights and Google

USA TODAY Sports

With recent speculation that Google will be coming in hard for Major League Soccer's TV rights when they become available after the 2014 season, we take stock of the playing field as negotiations between the league and its various TV partners are set to begin.

I'm a few days late on this, but I think this news still merits some discussion. John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal dropped his 2014 predictions last week and among them was this:

Google creates a subscription sports package

Before Google can make a splash with a big rights deal, it has to show that YouTube can handle a subscription package - and 2014 will be the year. Look for the company to set something up around U.S. and international soccer, potentially positioning the company as a player for rights in the next decade.

This got people who write about MLS going. ProSoccerTalk (owned by NBC) shared their thoughts, as did our fellow SBN sites Big D Soccer and LAG Confidential.

Before I get to my own thoughts on the potential of the deal, note that Ourand's prediction is just that (a prediction), and it also does not mean he thinks that MLS will be leaving the traditional airwaves. (See some tweets on that issue here.)

Basically, this would be Google bidding to replace MLS Live and possibly MLS coverage on Watch ESPN and NBC Sports Live Extra. MLS would still be taking bids from the likes of ESPN, NBC and Fox to carry league games - and the USMNT games that come bundled with them. Ourand's piece basically premises his prediction on the notion that Google wants to start going after NFL and NBA online subscription rights, but before they ever start throwing money around, they'll need to show they can run a subscription service; MLS would be Google's proving ground.

MLS is already selling subscriptions to MLS Live for 2014, but if Google brought a good enough platform and enough money to the table, I could absolutely see Don Garber and the league nixing their in-house system in favor of Google's. The more interesting questions are what this would mean for online streaming of games that air on national TV and what it would mean for consumers.

Right now, the league's two national television partners - ESPN has the "A" package of games, and NBC has the "B" package that was previously on Fox Soccer - have the online streaming rights to any game they air. These rights essentially black out MLS Live, which is also blacked out locally whenever a regional channel (like CSN) airs a match in a particular market. The question is whether Google would bring enough money to the table to convince MLS not to black out those matches online. It would be an incredibly big ask, and because most of the money in the next series of media rights deals will probably be coming from the traditional TV networks, I think it's too high of a hill to climb. If Google wins the right to replace MLS Live, I think it will operate exactly like MLS Live does today.

But there is one possible exception, and that's price. If Google wants to prove itself to bigger American sports leagues, we might see them do what Google loves best: lower the price on an MLS subscription package, maybe even all the way to zero. Right now, MLS depends on the subscription fees it charges for MLS Live to cover its costs and generate some revenue. Google is a much bigger operation than MLS, though, and it would be treating MLS streaming rights just like it treats its Android mobile operating system or the many Google apps that are out there - as a loss leader. Essentially, Google would forego some or all revenue from subscription charges to (1) get more eyeballs looking at ads, their primary business, and (2) to goose viewer numbers so that they look better when they later bid on NBA or NFL rights.

MLS obviously wouldn't object, because they'd be getting their money from Google while also getting better online viewer numbers and cutting the legs out from under any illegal streams. And fans of the league wouldn't object, either, since we'd be getting online access to virtually every MLS game gratis. Add in carriage on widely distributed cable TV platforms and big increases in the money MLS gets from all of these rights deals, and everybody is better off than under the status quo.

So, basically, Google getting involved in MLS streaming rights doesn't automatically change much of anything. But it could still be very, very good for MLS and its fans.

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