On the one hand, it's the biggest TV rights deal for domestic soccer in American history. On the other hand, it's still a pittance compared with the other major sports in the US landscape. Either way, though, Major League Soccer is making moves. As I first saw reported by Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald last week and now confirmed by the Sports Business Journal, MLS will announce this afternoon that they have signed an eight-year deal with Fox and ESPN for the English language rights to MLS and the United States national teams. The deal is worth a reported average of $75 million per year through 2022, which will pair nicely with the $15 million per year the league will receive from Univision for the Spanish language rights over the same period.
Some super-quick judgments on a few of the major aspects of the reported deal:
Money - Very good. Moving from $23 million in TV rights in 2014 to an average of $75 million over the next eight years (even bearing in mind that the early years of the deal will probably involve less money, as the fee ramps up over the life of the contract) is an unqualified goo thing. Unless, of course, you don't think the salary cap should and the salaries on the bottom half of the roster should be ratcheted up a few notches.
Leaving NBC for Fox - Not so good. Right now, MLS looks like that character on a show who runs back to the ex who treated them badly the last go-round, leaving the current love interest who treats them better than anybody ever has. Fox never showed MLS the love when they held the league's rights through 2011. Production values were notoriously poor; there was precious little pre- or post-game coverage; it never felt like Fox cared beyond having inventory to fill out the schedule. NBC was the exact opposite, building in 20 minutes of pregame for every match, airing original programming like MLS Insider and MLS36, and planning for the bet possible lead in programming, Premier League matches before afternoon MLS games. ESPN has always accepted MLS as its vegetables to get at the real prize, USMNT matches. Like every TV character ever, MLS has left the "nice one" who treated it like royalty to return to the old flame, hoping this time will be better. (Well, at least the money certainly is.)
Regular time slots - Extremely good. When rumors of a deal between the league and Fox/ESPN were initially making the rounds, the first thing I asked for was regular time slots for matches. I want a hard schedule for all league matches, personally, but I'll take what this deal seems to promise: regular slots for nationally televised games. Univision will have a game every Friday night, while ESPN and Fox Sports 1 will air games back-to-back on Saturdays Sundays. Assuming this faux double-header really will be at the same time every week, this will get casual viewers into the habit of knowing when marquee matchups are going to be on nationwide.
Ditching MLS Live and Direct Kick for ESPN3 - Possibly good, potentially terrible. One unique aspect of the deal is ESPN's taking over MLS' out-of-market subscription package. Whether this aspect benefits the league really depends on the implementation. At the moment, it is unclear whether ESPN will offer it as a part of its ESPN3 streaming service for no additional charge or whether it will be a standalone package. In any event, ESPN could completely ruin this for many MLS fans by firewalling it by ISP or cable/satellite provider. For instance, right now ESPN3 is gated based on your ISP, while Watch ESPN is limited by cable/satellite provider - if you don't get the right service from the right company, you don't get to watch. ESPN is, of course, free to use that as the baseline, but hopefully they won't entirely lock out those fans who happily pay for MLS Live now but do not get service from an ESPN-partnered provider. MLS Live has made some good improvements over the last few years, with replays available more reliably (even if the editing of "condensed matches" still leaves much to be desired) - one hopes those gains are not lost with the move to a third-party platform. Of course, this says nothing about the Direct Kick subscription package, mostly used by soccer-friendly bars, which apparently will also be going kaput; your local soccer pub will need to make sure it's got a decent internet connection if you want to watch that west coast game over a pint.
Money (again) - Still way good. Even though SBJ's report indicates that MLS wasn't focusing on the money during the months-long negotiations, that's the biggest get for the league here. But only if Don Garber & Co. are smart about it. During the collective bargaining agreement negotiations this coming offseason, the league needs to come to the table ready to allow a significant bump in the salary cap and minimum salaries. The standard of play, while steadily improving, is still a chink in the league's armor, and it's the weakest players who determine that standard. Improving the bottom half of rosters will have dramatic effects on perceptions of the league - not to mention the chances an MLS team finally offs a Liga MX side.
Be sure to read SBJ's and Philly.com's reporting on the deals and negotiations - there's a lot more info than I could provide here. And stay tuned for more when the official announcement drops at 1pm today. In the meantime, let us know in the comments what you think of the new TV situation that will present itself starting next year.