A new, five-year collective bargaining agreement with the players association in the books, Major League Soccer is ready to kick off its 20 anniversary season on Friday night in California with momentum on its side.
The domestic futbol circuit, borne from FIFA awarding the U.S. the rights to the 1994 World Cup, enters the milestone campaign with new national TV contracts and dedicated match windows that should generate higher ratings and enhance fan experiences with games unfolding across weekends.
The league and commissioner Don Garber, who is making the rounds to a trio of contests this weekend, are also welcoming a pair of new clubs this season with a second side in the New York area and an MLS return to the Sunshine State.
Moreover, MLS hopes to cash in on futbol fever that sambaed its way to the U.S. from the 2014 Brazilian World Cup, and will reenergize again in Canada this June and July, as the women's team attempts to add a third Women's World Cup to its mantle.
Having inked a new CBA that will increase salaries and provide for the first form of free agency in the single-structure entity's history, MLS's 20th season gets underway at the Stubhub Center in Carson, Calif., where the defending champion and Landon Donovan-less Los Angeles Galaxy host the Chicago Fire at 7 p.m. (PT).
Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez noted the match will mark the first time Spanish-language services, aggregating their ratings, kick off a major U.S. sports league’s campaign,
As part of new eight-year deals worth $90 million annually – more than trebling the $27 million yearly payout under the last rights pact –the Univision-owned services will be the Friday night place for MLS action.
ESPN2 – the worldwide leader has been with the league since its inception – has the 5 p.m. window on Sundays, while Fox Sports 1 will serve up matches at 7 p.m., creating a de facto futbol doubleheader. In addition to authenticated TVE products, WatchESPN and Fox Sports Go, streaming the matches, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes are also televising those contests.
In fact, all national games will be presented in Spanish, as MLS looks to build on its Latino base, whom already represent one-third of the league's fans..
The other matches will play on Saturdays, with local/regional sports outlets carrying the matches. The new clubs – Orlando City FC and New York City FC, which have regional deals with FOX 35 / WRBW MY65 and YES Network, respectively – will make their MLS bow on ESPN2 on March 8. A 30-minute pregame show provides a lead-in.
“The ability to drive viewers to the respective time slots is going to be huge for the networks and the league. The new scheduling on Saturdays is also good for the clubs in being able to market and get fans to the games, and for the players in terms of practice and routines,” said senior vice president of programming Scott Guglielmino, noting over the years games were played at various times to accommodate network window wishes.
“As thrilled as we are with the increase in rights fees, the league and our fans are going to benefit more from the consistency of scheduling and promotion that will create appointment viewing,” MLS president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures Gary Stevenson, who said last season matches were held on seven different days and 28 starting times.
The MLS brand is also expanding abroad. Discovery Communications' Eurosport will cover four matches per weekend, while Sky Sports has inked a deal to cover two games weekly. “These will serve as platforms to other players who may be looking to MLS as an on-field option,” said Stevenson.
This season, major internationals such as Kaka, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Frank Lampard, will join MLS rosters.
Stateside, there will be heightened levels of production. Each partner will originate telecasts from the stadium, with talent on-site at the various stadia.
Promotion will also ratchet up. David Nathanson, general manager and COO of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, said that during the league's Feb. 23 broadcast meeting in Orlando, discussions not only centered about cross-promotion among the national partners, but how “the regionals and local stations carrying games on Saturdays will make viewers aware of the big matches on ESPN and Fox on MLS Soccer Sundays.” Fox is returning to the MLS pitch after presenting league matches from 2003-11.
Nathanson noted the domestic league will also benefit from promotion during Fox Sports’ coverage of FIFA’s distaff quadrennial north of the border. “It’s the perfect opportunity to expose new fans of Women’s World Cup to MLS,” he said.
FSI opens with one of its three doubleheaders on March 8 -- Sporting Kansas City hosting the New York Red Bulls at 7 p.m. followed by the Seattle Sounders entertaining the eastern conference champion New England Revolution. The network’s coverage will feature on-site, pre- and post-game and halftime segments,, with a field reporter and soccer insider flanking the talent in the booth.
Nathanson said the network will also serve up an expanded post-game show after its Sunday primetime match, opening the pitch to Garbage Time with Katie Nolan, at 9:30 p.m..,starting March 15.
Gugliemo, said the worldwide leader will enhance MLS’s presence on ESPN FC show that airs weekdays on ESPNews at 6 p.m, and Sundays at midnight on ESPN2. “The social buzz for MLS is a virtuous part of the soccer conversation among fans,” he said.
The website features many league-specific elements, including an oral history of the circuit and 20 of its key moments.
“Twenty years is a big anniversary for MLS. It’s a busy sports landscape that’s only become more competitive over the years with other sports and other soccer leagues,” said Gugliemo. “MLS has grown in the marketplace and the in-stadium experience for fans is tremendous. It’s a big anniversary and ESPN is very proud to be part of it.”
Univision is upping its MLS game considerably via a relaunched website. It will also offer an English-language SAP option for all its telecasts, with former U.S. national team player Paul Caligiuri providing the commentary.
“Whether in Spanish or English, soccer fans are going to feel a great level of excitement for MLS,” said Rodriguez.
Univision’s Saturday coverage of Liga MX, the most-watched soccer circuit in North America, for the first time will include live look-ins of MLS action and goals. Although Rodriguez recognizes it could result in some loss of viewership for Liga MX matches, “the goal is to grow the sport overall.”
He also noted that Univision’s game plan also calls for Somos MLS (We Are MLS), to air on UDN, beginning on March 8, at 10 p.m., and serve as a weekly recap, highlight show for the league.
MLS segments are on tap for Republica Deportiva, Futbol Club, Contacto Deportivo and Locura Deportiva, and the U.S. Spanish-language media leader also will leverage player appearances within some of its entertainment programming.
The new contract also calls for flex scheduling for the penultimate weekend, so the three national partners can televise the most important matches. That leads to “Decision Day” on Oct. 25, the final Sunday of the 2015 regular-season. Stevenson explained that five games in the Eastern Conference will unfold concurrently at 5 p.m., with one game airing on FSI and another on UniMás. Immediately following at 7 p.m.,, all five Western Conference match-ups will unfold, with one game airing on ESPN2 and a second on UDN. All of the other contests will be showcased across network and league digital platforms, so fans can keep abreast for the final push toward playoff seedings.
The 2015 postseason will feature a dozen teams, with all of the games appearing nationally for the first time. FS1 and ESPN2 will cover the playoffs in their entirety, save for a pair of games on the Univision services. Alternating the events over the course of the contract, FS1 will air the All-Star Game this summer, while ESPN2 has MLS Cup.
Echoing sentiments expressed by the others, Nathanson is sanguine about the league’s Nielsens fortunes.
“With the commitment from the networks with the telecasts and the distinct, destinations for viewers where they know they can find the action, we’re giving MLS its best chance to [improve ratings] in its 20 years,” he said.