Major League Soccer Nets New TV Deals

Domestic League Agrees to Eight-Year Pact with ESPN, Fox, Univision
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New York -- As a means to build continuity and drive viewership, Major League Soccer has struck long-term deals that will give the domestic soccer circuit dedicated Match of the Week windows on three networks.

The eight-year deal affords Univision, ESPN and Fox Sports an array of linear and digital rights, kicking off in 2015 and extending through the end of the 2022 campaign. Under the pact, Spanish-language U.S. media leader Univision Communications – through broadcaster UniMas and cable service Univision Deportes -- will air matches on Friday nights, while ESPN2 (or ESPN) will air what amounts to a first of Sunday evening/night doubleheader at 5 p.m. (ET). That will be followed by a 7 p.m. match on Fox Sports 1.  The three partners will televise more than 125 matches annually under the new contract. Univision will also air a wrap show on Sunday afternoons.

The deals are reported at a collective $90 million annually, representing a more than trebling over current partners’ annual outlays of $27 million. The need for live programming and association with a league, whose product is growing on the field and will soon see new franchises in Orlando, New York (a second in the DMA) and Miami, helped pushed rights fees past the $85 million NBC Sports Group allocates annually over its three-season Barclays Premier League contract.

MLS’s new contract keeps its longest-running partner ESPN, which has been with the league since its 1996 inception, on the pitch for what will amount to 27 years. Upon the conclusion of its new deal, Univision’s relationship with the league will have extended to 20 years. For its part, Fox returns after previously airing league action from 2003-2011.  NBC is MLS’s other national partner through the end of this campaign.  

MLS Cup will alternate between ESPN2 and FSI, along with the All-Star Game. The schedule has not yet been set for 2015 season.

As part of the pacts, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes will also be home to Spanish-language presentations of the contests the programmers’ hold the respective rights to.

The deal also covers rights to home matches of U.S. men’s and women’s national team games for the three partners.

There have been previous pushes by the league and its TV networks to establish scheduling footholds on Thursdays and Saturdays over the years, but this time all of the partners expressed a firm commitment to the timeslots as a way to let soccer fans know when the matches will air, flanked by a requisite promotion to trumpet the action.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber in an interview after the press conference announcing the new rights deals said “the consistent windowing” was the league’s top priority, even more so than the increased rights fees and heightened attendant promotion the media partners will supply. “It will allow our fans to grow accustomed to know when and where to watch MLS games on these national networks,” he said.

The pact will also result in ESPN3 stepping onto the out-of-market pitch, taking over streaming offering MLS Live and the pay-per-vi subscription package, MLS Direct Kick, which is currently offered by In Demand and satellite providers.

Garber said was MLS willing to take a short-term PPV revenue hit for what the circuit believes will be wider exposure on ESPN3 and over-the-top providers like Google Play, iTunes, Apple TV and Roku.

"We've already placed a big bet on the future with the World Cup and we believe this investment in MLS is an investment in, collectively, what we can do as a domestic league," said Fox Sports president and COO Eric Shanks.

With the new agreement, the worlwide leader will maintains a soccer presence on the network as it hands off World Cup rights to Fox following this summer's World Cup from Brazil. "We're bullish on where this sport is going overall," said ESPN president John Skipper.

Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez noted that soccer remains the top sport for U.S. Latinos and the new long-term deal makes it "easier to manage the business" and will help Univision grow ratings and MLS over the years.

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