SBJ/Aug. 5-11, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Garber, MLS set for TV talks

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Major League Soccer’s negotiations for new broadcast agreements will begin this fall with Gary Stevenson, the newly hired president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures, “leading the charge,” said Commissioner Don Garber last week in Kansas City.

MLS’s Don Garber speaks at All-Star Community Day in Kansas City last week.
Photo by: MLS
“Gary’s primary responsibility out of the gate will be these talks,” Garber said of Stevenson, the former Pac-12 Conference, NBA and PGA Tour executive hired in June.

Evolution Media Capital, an affiliate of CAA, will advise MLS in its media rights discussions. Garber said Alan Gold, a partner at the investment bank and advisory firm, will take the lead for Evolution Media Capital, which advised the Pac-12 Conference when it landed a 12-year, $3 billion deal from ESPN and Fox Sports.

“All of our agreements expire concurrently at the end of the 2014 season,” Garber said, referring to the league’s television deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision. “The talks will start with our current partners this fall, and we have great relationships with all of them. We’ve had a strong partnership with Univision for seven years. ESPN has really increased its coverage of MLS and all of soccer, and NBC has been doubling and tripling down in our sport, like its new deal to broadcast the Premier League.”

Univision signed an eight-year, $80 million deal in 2006 with Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, to broadcast 25 MLS games a year, 10 U.S. men’s national team games and five international games operated by SUM. That same year, ESPN paid about $64 million for an eight-year deal that includes regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the MLS Cup final match. In 2011, NBC signed a three-year, $30 million deal for 45 MLS matches and four U.S. men’s national team games each season.

In total, MLS has received about $28 million from its broadcast rights holders in each of the last three years. With a greater demand for live sports programming, competition from new outlets like Fox Sports 1 and BeIn Sport and the increasing popularity of soccer, likely to spike with the World Cup in 2014, MLS is expected to earn more lucrative broadcast deals.

MLS enjoyed regular-season viewership increases last season, but national TV ratings have yet to show consistent growth.

Garber, who declined to estimate what his league’s TV deals will be worth next year, met in Kansas City with MLS’s media committee to discuss plans for media rights negotiations. The committee includes the Kraft Group ­— owners of the New England Revolution — Seattle Sounders FC majority owner Joe Roth, Vancouver Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett and executives from Providence Equity Partners, the private equity firm that bought a 20 percent stake in SUM for $120 million in 2011.

“Providence Equity and its managing partner, Al Dobron, have become very valuable resources for me and the league, particularly in the media space,” Garber said.

Among Garber’s responses on other topics:

World Cup break: Garber said MLS will likely have a recess for the first two weeks of the 2014 World Cup competition, as it did in 2010. “Based on the success with that approach in the last World Cup, it’s likely we’ll do something similar in 2014,” he said.

Player development investment: Garber revealed that MLS and its teams are together spending more than $20 million a year on developing home-grown players through club academies. More than 100 home-grown players have been signed by their local MLS clubs. “It’s an area we’re going to continue to invest in, but we’re also looking at whether the Reserve League system we have is the right one,” Garner said. “We’re going to take some time over the next year to figure it out.”

His future: The commissioner’s contract expires after the 2014 season, but Garber, 55, didn’t sound like he’s leaving his post any time soon. “It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this for almost a decade and a half,” said Garber, who was named commissioner in 1999 and signed his latest contract in 2010. “I’m very happy with what I’ve been doing and hope to be able to do it for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, that decision is made by MLS club ownership.”

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