SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLS opens talks with ESPN, NBC

MLS has started negotiations to extend its media deals with ESPN and NBC Sports Group.

The league is in an exclusive negotiating window with ESPN that expires at the end of this month. It also is in an exclusive negotiating period with NBC Sports Group, and while it’s unclear when that window closes, it’s expected to be before ESPN’s window.

“It is early in the process, but discussions with our current partners have started, and we are pleased with the progress of those initial meetings,” said Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures, who is overseeing the negotiations.

NBC Sports Group is in the middle of a three-year, $30 million deal to carry MLS games.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
MLS hired Stevenson, the former head of Pac-12 Networks, in June.

Evolution Media Capital is advising the league on its media rights talks.

ESPN and NBC currently pay around a combined $18 million annually for rights to MLS games and U.S. men’s and women’s national team games through deals that expire next year. ESPN is nearing the end of an eight-year, $64 million deal; NBC is in the middle of a three-year, $30 million deal.

Sources said MLS is looking to more than double that figure, bringing in $40 million to $50 million per year.
Univision’s eight-year, $79.4 million deal also ends next year, and MLS has begun talks there.

These negotiations are unique in that they involve two properties — MLS and U.S. Soccer — being sold as one package. Both properties are managed by Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm. By tying them together, the popular U.S. men’s national team matches can bring a much higher rights fee than MLS games could on their own.

ESPN’s coverage of the men’s national team has seen a substantial increase this year. Compared with four years ago — the last time the team played World Cup qualifiers — viewership is up 72 percent. Eight games in 2012-13 averaged 1.305 million viewers; 11 games in 2008-09 averaged 758,000 viewers.

MLS, though, has seen viewership drop dramatically so far this year on both ESPN and NBCSN compared with 2012. MLS viewership on ESPN/ESPN2 is down 31 percent this year, averaging 220,000 viewers per game through 17 games. Last year, ESPN/ESPN2’s MLS games averaged 317,000 viewers through 18 games. NBCSN’s MLS numbers are down 13 percent, averaging 111,000 viewers through 32 games. Last year, NBCSN averaged 128,000 through the same period (33 games).

MLS is expecting to benefit from a marketplace for live sports rights that’s as hot as it’s ever been. A source with direct knowledge of the negotiations expects the league to take its rights to the open market, where Fox Sports is expected to make a bid. Fox Sports also holds rights to the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and 2022 and is believed to want rights to the men’s national team games before those events.

But NBC Sports is expected to make a big push to keep MLS. At an industry conference last week, NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus spoke about how NBC’s MLS and English Premier League schedules complement each other. NBC is in the first year of a three-year deal to carry EPL programming. “We think we can do more overlap,” he said. “Since EPL has started, our numbers have grown.”

Since the start of the EPL season on Aug. 17, NBCSN’s MLS viewership has averaged 137,000 viewers across a nine-game span, up 52 percent from the same period last year.

ESPN also remains interested in a deal despite its recent loss of rights to both the World Cup and EPL. Though the network has been disappointed with the ratings performance of MLS, ESPN is interested in the men’s and women’s national team games.

In an interview during the league’s All-Star festivities in Kansas City in late July, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was complimentary of the league’s current TV partners, saying, “ESPN has really increased its coverage of MLS and all of soccer, and NBC has been doubling and tripling down in our sport.”

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