A couple months ago, D.C. United ended its relationship with this season’s broadcast partner, FloSports. For the last few games, the team itself took on the role of local broadcaster, providing streaming service with the same blackout radius to locals, and relying on ESPN+ to cover out-of-market fans. For me at least, and probably for many, the stream on D.C. United’s website worked better than the experience I got from FloFC; a quick Chromecast from my browser to the TV and it was up and running flawlessly.
But going into next season, United will not broadcast games on their own website (I would hope). A complicating factor in choosing a new partner is the rumor that MLS is going to bring all broadcast production in house as part of a new overall deal that they are going to market for the 2022 season. Teams are apparently being told not to sign any deals the go past the end of 2022, so it seems like anyone with whom D.C. United might partner would have to be willing to accept a 3 year deal.
In addition, Steven Goff of the Washington Post has some information on the talks that D.C. United is currently having with a number of potential broadcast partners:
D.C. United search for local broadcast partner continues following FloSports fiasco. Best I can tell, they’ve held formal talks with one over-air channel, a sports cable outlet (NBC Sports Washington) and a high-end national streaming platform. #dcu #mls— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) November 27, 2019
On TV front, 3 outlets have shown some level of interest in becoming local broadcast partner: NBC Sports Washington, Fox5, WJLA7/8. There is also a streaming service in mix, probably in combo with local TV, but unclear yet which one. 27 of 34 matches slated for local platform.— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) December 20, 2019
Let’s break down the various potential streaming partners, plus some longshots
After initially being described as a deal between D.C. United and WJLA, United fans quickly realized that most of the games were going to be broadcast on NewsChannel8, Sinclair’s cable network, and not on the over-the-air WJLA. In the middle of the deal, Sinclair’s American Sports Network, their first foray into sports production, was shuttered; with it went any promise of ancillary content. Depending on your cable provider or which feed was used, the broadcaster also showed many games in standard definition, which just as ridiculous in 2017 as it would be today. Currently, all of WJLAs subchannels still broadcast in 480i, and the main channel is still in 720p; WUSA and WZDC, for example, broadcast both of their main channels in 1080i.
While an OTA option is great for people in the DMV, it is the worst for people who live outside of the broadcast range of the tower. During the days of the Sinclair deal, the team negotiated a number of broadcast partners in Richmond, Hampton Roads, Baltimore, and Roanoke to simulcast the games. This worked well in the first year of the deal, but in the second and third years some broadcasters started dropping off, leaving fans in the lurch.
Unlike previous deals, with Sinclair the blackout region was the smallest that it has ever been for the team, covering the District, suburban Maryland, and Northern Virginia.
Sinclair now has their own sports streaming service, Stadium, which replaced American Sports Network; it is available on some of their subnetworks (though not currently in Washington), as a channel on SlingTV or FuboTV, or it can be watched on free streaming services like Twitch, PlutoTV, STIRR, or The Roku Channel.
NBC Sports Washington/Monumental Sports Network
Because of their convoluted ownership structure, I am considering these two together. There is a chance, that they submit separate bids, or that NBCSW submits a bid without Monumental Sports Network, but I consider that unlikely. The line between Monumental Sports Network and NBC Sports Washington are somewhat blurry; when Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic rebranded as NBC Sports Washington, Leonsis bought part of the new network and the new network bought part of Monumental Sports Network.
NBC Sports Washington is a familiar name, not only to D.C. United fans but to everyone in the DMV. Formerly Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic (and before that, Home Team Sports), the network broadcast all of D.C. United’s local games from 1996 until the team signed with Sinclair’s WJLA and NewsChannel8 in 2016.
The downside of NBCSW is that, in D.C. United’s previous deals, multiple games per season were not broadcast live on the flagship network. Multiple games were pushed to what was then CSN+, which had limited distribution, or games were tape-delayed to broadcast when CSN had an opening in their schedule. Occasionally, D.C. United had to broadcast games on their website because both channels were full.
Another issue is the fact that there are many more cordcutters now than there were the last time D.C. United were on a regional sports network. Full cordcutters do not have any access to NBCSW, and subscribers to services such as YouTubeTV, Hulu Live, or SlingTV have varying access. All three seem to have NBCSW, but only Hulu Live has NBCSW Plus.
Both of these issues could be ameliorated with a partnership with a streaming service, and it just so happens that Ted Leonisis, who in addition to owning the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards, also owns a streaming service.
The Washington Spirit signed a broadcast deal with NBCSW and Monumental this year, and the ups and downs of that deal should be familiar to D.C. United fans. NBCSW games were split between NBCSW and NBCSW Plus, and then all games were also broadcast on Monumental Sports Network, which requires an monthly ($6.99) or yearly fee (currently discounted to $49.99). I am a little wary of Monumental Sports Network, as it is another boutique streaming service, but with local ownership and a longer track record, they would have a bigger incentive to get things right and a higher likelihood of doing so.
ESPN+ is the potential partner that many fans hoped for when we heard that D.C. United was going streaming-only for the 2019 season, and out of any of the potential “national streaming services” that D.C. United might be talking to, they are the one I would prefer. The over the top streamer already the rights to Serie A, the Eredivisie, the Allsvensken, the Danish Superliga, and, in a huge coup, they have acquired the rights to the Bundesliga, which will start for the 2020-2021 season. For fellow MLS nerds, they already have all of MLS’ out of market games (though it doesn’t perform as well as the dearly departed MLS Live).
The Chicago Fire have had all of their local games on ESPN+ for the past two seasons, and while the reception has been mixed, it is at least the best deal in the soccer streaming market. You get all of the content mentioned above, plus a bunch of other sports properties, all for $4.99 a month; if you bundle with Disney+ and Hulu, the effective cost of the platform is even lower.
The downsides are similar to the downsides of FloSports: local sports fans are not likely to just come across a D.C. United game and be able to watch it, and bar partners would have to already subscribe in order to show games to groups. However, with ESPN+ there is at least the possibility of people who are already soccer fans coming in to sample D.C. United and MLS.
Fox5 was mentioned by Steve Goff as a new contender for D.C. United’s streaming rights. Fox5 is directly owned by Fox Television, so if MLS is thinking about a national TV deal with Fox, then this local partnership could make sense. Fox5 also owns WDCA, so they would have some options if they needed to move content around.
Like WJLA, currently Fox5 broadcasts its main channel in 720p and their subchannels are available only in 480i. They have not produced their own sports broadcasts before, but have carried the Washington NFL team’s games as well as the Washington Nationals’ Fox broadcast games.
The do not have their own streaming service, but there could be the potential for streaming with Fox Sports’ apps if the need arises and the deal is struck.
This would be the option with the most question marks, and the most to prove about their ability to put together a broadcast.
Fox Sports could make a play for the national contract in 2022, having been involved with soccer in the United States for a long time. If D.C. United signs a contract with Fox5, I would consider this possibility slightly more likely. However, the Fox Sports regional networks have recently been purchased by Sinclair and are supposed to be rebranded while the national channels (FS1 and FS2) were retained by the new Fox Corporation. The but they do not currently have a D.C.-area regional sports network. Some Fox Sports contact currently airs on MASN2, but that would be a less than optimal agreement for United.
LAFC launched with YouTubeTV as their jersey sponsor and broadcast partner, with a record-setting deal, so there is a small chance that they could be in the picture. In addition, they had a partnership with the Seattle Sounders to broadcast games in addition to their regular television partners, but that deal has lapsed. YouTubeTV is primarily a cable replacement, but there is a dedicated channel on the lineup grid for all things LAFC if you are inside their geofence.
The main problem with YouTubeTV as a broadcast partner is the price: it is currently $49.99 per month, since it is a dedicated cable replacement. If that isn’t something you want, then that is a very steep price to pay just for 1-3 soccer games per week. In the DC area, they carry the ESPNs, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and NBCSW; they do not carry MASN, however.
Who do you want to see as D.C. United’s new broadcast partner?