Earlier this month, word dropped that MLS would be taking its TV rights to ESPN and Fox starting in 2015, and having had a few days to stew it over, I figured it was time to explicitly lay out what we want from both the league and it's new (and old-but-new-again) television partners in what appears to be a deal that will run seven years and span a period including two World Cups.
This is something of a give from the league's side - or at least from the teams in their individual capacities. I want a regimented schedule of starting times. No more of a Saturday night schedule that reads 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:00, 8:30, 10, 11. Give the networks defined slots to work with, two hours (or just a bit more) apart to avoid unnecessary overlapping. Get people into the habit of watching games (whether nationally televised or via online distribution) at set times. The league could do a lot worse than a 3:30 matinee, followed by a game or two at 5:45, a big slate at 8:00 and a nightcap (or two) at 10:15.
Then add to that a marquee game on Friday nights. Or a couple on Sunday afternoons. Or on Thursday nights. Or any regular combination of the above so that people develop an expectation. If I ask you when an NFL team is playing on a particular regular season week, you can answer "early game," "late game," Sunday night or Monday night, and no further clarification is needed. So it should be for MLS.
If the league wants to keep increasing its rights fee once the deal with ESPN and Fox expires around 2022, they'll need ratings to be more than just potential. Establishing regular time slots will help with that, albeit probably less than improving the product on the field, which brings us to...
Fox and ESPN to split MLS TV rights
To the dismay of many fans, NBC will no longer be broadcasting MLS games after the 2014 season; Soccer by Ives and Jonathan Tannewald are reporting that Fox and ESPN will split MLS's rights.
Invest the Money up and down the Rosters
Major League Soccer is investing a lot of money into rosters right now, but it's doing so in an incredibly limited number of players. Namely Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. It may be a pipe dream, but I want every penny of the reported $70 million annual rights payment to go directly into player salaries, and I want the vast majority of it to go to the lower two-thirds of each roster.
Ask the pundits who follow MLS and Liga MX, and they're likely to tell you that the biggest difference in quality between the two leagues isn't in roster spots 1-11. It's in spots 12-18 and - especially - 19-23. It's in depth, in reducing the drop-off between the first choice talent and the reserve who will take the field when the starter inevitably misses a game. It's those guys who can make a living wage somewhere else in the world as a second- or third-choice player who set the floor for quality of play. And right now, MLS just doesn't pay enough to attract and retain enough quality players down the bench.
The players' union should - and, I imagine, will - demand a substantial increase in both the salary cap and the league's minimum salaries. Don Garber has already started negotiating in the press, saying that the league is still shedding money, the implication being that salaries can't be pushed much higher without imperiling the league's survival. I don't buy it. The reason Fox and ESPN are overpaying so dramatically for a league with minuscule ratings is for growth over the term of the deal, and the only way it will happen is by improving player quality. And not just at the top, but all the way down the roster, too.
This ties in somewhat with the rumor from last month (speculation is the more accurate term) that Google might come in for MLS' online video rights, replacing MLS Live with a subscription system run off of YouTube. With reporting that online rights - at least for nationally televised games - will be going along with TV rights to the likes of ESPN and Fox, it's hard to say where this one stands.
I will say that I hope that MLS didn't just give half a baby each to Fox and ESPN, allowing the two to each own half the season in the online video space. For one, it would make things tougher for me to watch MLS games online, because Watch ESPN doesn't count Dish Network (my TV provider) as a partner. Moreover, Fox would likely tie its matches into Fox Soccer 2Go, which at no less than $140 a year costs twice as much as full-price MLS Live (with, mind you, potentially as low as half the MLS games, albeit with lots of others from around the world that I don't presently care about).
The status quo or even a Google takeover of the streaming rights would be preferable to that. Incredibly so. I really want to see games that aren't nationally televised not go to the online portals of Fox and ESPN. Keep them separate; keep them available.
Extra Content & Promotion
This is the big ask directed at the networks. Give us magazine shows like NBC did with MLS36. Give us our own version of Match of the Day, at a reasonable time (3:30 on Friday afternoon is not a reasonable time), give us a 90s vintage MLS 2nite if you need to. Just give us something worth watching, with attention focused as much as possible on MLS. Not the Premier League, not the Bundesliga, not La Liga or Liga MX. Give us more Major League Soccer content, and we'll be there to watch.
And on top of that, let us know when it's on. Don't just schedule a show and leave it to the trade press to put the word out. Put the word out during Monday Night Football or the NASCAR race. If NBC can hype MLS during Olympic basketball and Notre Dame football, Fox and ESPN can push the league during a Yankees game or even - God forbid - SportsCenter.
This last part is a risk, but I'd like to see the league thinking big enough to insist on it anyway. I want both sides to have the ability to op out after six years, just like the NCAA did with the March Madness rights recently. I'd like to see Fox and ESPN be able to tell MLS after six years that it's not working out, and the property isn't worth what they're paying. And I want MLS to be able to tell their television partners that the product has appreciated to such a degree that they want to negotiate the next deal early. It would force MLS to take the onus to improve the league's quality and marketability, both as a defensive measure (to make sure the networks don't cut them off) and as an offensive interest (to get moar moniez!).
Other than NBC, which really does seem to nurture the properties it aquires and make the most out of them, the networks aren't going to bear that responsibility. It's on the league to look out for itself. This sort of provision goes a long way toward ensuring that Don Garber & Co. don't get too comfortable banking that $70 million each year. Not if it could evaporate in 2020 if they don't keep a fire lit under their backsides, and not if it could be even more than that if they keep the pedal down.
These are my priorities in the TV deal. Let us know yours down in the comments.
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