ESPN Cuts Soccer Deal On the Cheap

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Finally, a TV sports deal that shouldn't draw the ire of cable operators: ESPN and ABC Sports last week reached a five-year deal with Major League Soccer to provide coverage of the men's pro soccer league, as well as the next three World Cup competitions — without The Walt Disney Co.-owned networks paying a rights fee.

The agreement was actually struck by the networks and a new company formed by MLS investors, led by Qwest Communications International Inc. founder Phil Anschutz. It will manage sales, service and broadcast production for the World Cup properties, as well as handle the men's pro soccer league's telecasts and sponsorship rights through 2006.

Under terms of the pact, announced on a Jan. 2 conference call, the yet-to-be-named MLS investor company will cover all production costs for the matches and sell sponsorship/advertising packages across the properties.

ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will make their schedules available for the telecasts, foregoing rights payments and ad revenues in exchange for comprehensive soccer programming over the next five years, including what is arguably the planet's most popular sporting event: the men's World Cup competitions in 2002 and 2006.

ESPN and ESPN2 will present 17 and 46 live 2002 World Cup matches, respectively. Three opening-round games involving the U.S. national team will air on the cable networks, which will re-air at least nine of the matches.

The 2002 World Cup will be held in Japan and South Korea next May and June, which means games will air in the middle of the night in this country.

ABC will televise nine 2002 World Cup matches, eight via tape delay and the final from Yokohama, Japan live on June 30 at 7 a.m. (ET)

The trio of networks will also air a minimum of 11 Women's World Cup matches from China in 2003, with the championship match slated for ABC. That network will show a minimum of 12 matches live from World Cup Germany in 2006; other matches will air on the ESPN networks.

The pact, as expected, makes ESPN2 the home of MLS games next season. They'll air at 4 p.m. on 22 consecutive Saturday afternoons. For its part, ABC will air three matches, including the All-Star Game and MLS Cup. MLS and ESPN2 have also agreed to televise as many as four late-season contests on Thursday nights.

That agreement had been expected to come in October, around the time of the MLS Cup. But at that time, negotiations between MLS investors and Kirch Media Group, which represents FIFA, soccer's world governing body, began to heat up.

That group ultimately purchased the English-language TV rights in the U.S. for a reported $40 million to $50 million.

Now, the MLS investment company — with such principals as Anschutz Entertainment Group, whose interests include control of five MLS clubs, the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings and The Staples Center, The Hunt Sports Group and ad agency Dentsu — will start pitching combined sponsorship deals of the World Cup and MLS.

The matches will air commercial-free, with advertisers able to affiliate themselves with a continuous score clock that have been hallmarks of ABC, ESPN and ESPN2's soccer presentations since 1994.

MLS executive vice president of marketing Mark Noonan said the MLS investment group is contractually obligated to first offer media packages for the World Cup properties to FIFA sponsors. The group would then look to league sponsors, then canvass the rest of the Madison Avenue for deals.

He said these broad platforms would not only include logo/clock identification and commercials during halftime, pre- and post-game segments, but offer field boards and the ability to sponsor teams and get involved with national and grass-roots marketing initiatives.

That could prove challenging for the upcoming World Cups in Japan/Korea and the 2003 women's event from China, owing to the vast time differences.

Sponsorship prospects are no doubt brighter for MLS and the scheduling continuity it has secured for the next five seasons, as well as the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "ABC and ESPN may have been a little short-sighted in terms of these deals," said a source in the soccer community. "The Cup from Germany will be more in time with American TV schedules and the U.S. team might really be ready to make a good run in the competition. They will be left without any time to sell."

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