3 Thoughts On MLS’ New, 4-Year TV Agreement With Fox Sports

On Tuesday, MLS announced that Fox Sports would be the exclusive network and cable TV home of MLS regular season and Audi MLS Cup Playoff games in the United States in a new pact that runs for the next four seasons.

The deal is a bit different than previous agreements. It stipulates Fox Sports will show an average of 34 regular season games annually, with 15 on the Fox network and the remaining inventory on the FS1. And those rights are essentially for simulcasts, since Apple TV already bought worldwide exclusive streaming rights for the next decade in a landmark $2.5-billion deal announced in June.

It’s also noteworthy for who won’t be involved. For the first time since MLS launched in 1996, ESPN networks won’t show any games. Longtime Spanish-language partner TelevisiaUnivision also won’t be involved in the MLS regular season, although it will show select matches of the Leagues Cup summer tournament that involves teams from both MLS and LigaMX.

The new landscape is a lot to take in. Instead of finding one common theme in it all, here’s three separate thoughts on how it all shook out.

1) This Is A Prove-It Deal

From MLS’ point of view, the smartest aspect of its linear TV deal is the relatively brief four-year length. It will expire right in the aftermath of the 2026 FIFA World Cup to be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, when momentum for the league and sport in America could be highest.

It’s also long enough to allow MLS and Apple TV to figure out best practices in their new relationship to grow the MLS brand. And it’s short enough that MLS should be able to sell any potential partners beyond 2026 that there is more growth possible beyond what is achieved in the next four years.

But more than ever before, the league will need to show its national broadcasts are valuable on their own. In previous MLS deals, ESPN, FOX and Univision also attained rights to United States men’s and women’s national team games. Those rights have now been separated and bought by Turner Sports and HBO Max. That’s possibly one reason ESPN and Fox reportedly weren’t ready to spend big on an exclusive rights package earlier this year, which resulted in Apple swooping in.

2) Maybe The ESPN Divorce Was Inevitable

Much of the recent appeal of MLS for ESPN stemmed from out-of-market local broadcast rights, which were previously distributed through the ESPN+ streaming service.

Now that Apple has all the MLS streaming rights, and with ESPN lacking U.S. national team or major international tournament broadcasting rights, from a 30,000-foot view holding on to MLS didn’t appear to make much strategic sense. Fox Sports on the other hand can still offer MLS as part of a package of soccer to viewers that also includes the next Concacaf Gold Cup, the next two European Championships and the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

And there were signs that ESPN might have been preparing for an end to its relationship with the league. It seemed unwilling in recent years to devote much in the way of news coverage or promotional resources to its MLS telecasts. And the network had also lost other soccer properties in recent years, after it was the near-universal home for global soccer in the early part of the millennium.

ESPN still holds rights to Spain’s LaLiga and Germany’s Bundesliga, but the majority of those games are relegated to the ESPN+ streaming service.

3) Was An Opportunity Lost?

If the fee Fox paid for this new package of matches is low as some estimates — orders of magnitude lower than the $250 million Apple is paying annually — it begs the question as to whether MLS could’ve been more creative with its lineal TV rights for the sake of exposure, even if it came at a discount.

The majority of soccer watchers in the United States over the next four years will be focused on one of three competitions: The Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, and Liga MX. Those rights are held respectively by NBC Sports, CBS Sports and TelevisiaUnivision.

If this is indeed a prove-it deal, there’s a case MLS would be better served partnering with one of those broadcasters. Even if MLS gave those rights away to one of those providers for free, if said provider effectively promoted the league with fans who previously preferred a European or Mexican soccer product, that money could be recouped through improved TV ratings leading to a more lucrative deal beyond 2026.

In fairness, TelevisiaUnivision has promoted MLS vigorously for years to an audience that prefers Liga MX, and with some success. But not enough, apparently, to come back to the table after acquiring exclusive Liga MX rights in the U.S. for the first time back in October.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ianquillen/2022/12/14/three-thoughts-on-mls-new-4-year-tv-agreement-with-fox-sports/