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Volume 20 No. 41


One unique aspect of MLS’s new media rights deal is that ESPN will manage the league’s out-of-market package.

Neither ESPN nor MLS executives last week knew how the package in its new form will be presented or what it will be named, but what was certain is that operation of the package will shift from MLS to ESPN.

“ESPN will probably offer it to their authenticated subscribers as part of their ESPN3 service,” said Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures. “If sports goes the way music has gone, seven years from now, maybe you can buy a 4-pack of games. Maybe you can buy the Game of the Week for 99 cents.”

A source said ESPN is looking at several potential business models, including potentially making the package available as an over-the-top subscription product.


SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand on MLS getting five times what it previously made from TV rights and the unique relationship between ESPN and Fox as they worked to shut out NBC

ESPN approached MLS with the idea last year, toward the beginning of their larger media negotiations. It took several months for the league to become comfortable with the idea that its out-of-market package will be streamed rather than offered over television.

“We weren’t sure we wanted to do that,” Stevenson said. “But the more we spoke with them and understood [ESPN’s top digital executive] John Kosner’s vision for this, we thought it was a great idea.”

Neither MLS executives nor cable operators would discuss how many subscribers the current out-of-market package, called Direct Kick, has been getting, but distribution sources said its take-up rate pales in comparison to other leagues. MLS currently operates MLS Direct Kick and sells it to distributors. It retails for $79 and carries up to 245 games.

Some of that blame comes down to scheduling. In the past few years, MLS games were scattered across the week.
ESPN executives believe the league’s new schedule, which puts most games on Saturdays, will help support the out-of-market package.

“MLS has a young, male, diverse demographic,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming. “Because the majority of those out-of-market matches — or, local matches — are going to happen on Saturdays, we felt like that was attractive for us to try and secure those rights.”

Penske Racing became the first NASCAR Sprint Cup team to sign on for a product developed by the handheld device company FanVision that will reduce the delay time of the broadcast feed at the team’s pit box by as much as 10 seconds.

The technology, which is called FanVision Pro, was developed earlier this year to provide TVs at team pit boxes, haulers and motorcoaches with a FanVision broadcast feed of the race, an in-car camera feed and statistics that detail everything from the fastest lap to who’s making a pit stop.

The product has the potential to reduce the broadcast delay that teams have at the racetrack from 15 seconds to less than 3 seconds, which Travis Geisler, Penske Racing director of competition, said could make a difference in the team’s performance.

“With the TV broadcast, there had been an increased lag time between what was happening and when you

Penske hopes the technology will help the team make better decisions during the race and on pit stops.

were seeing it,” Geisler said. “It started to become difficult to use the feed on the pit box to make decisions. It was far enough behind that you couldn’t see the damage on a car as fast as the FanVision Pro can provide it.”

FanVision, which is owned by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, has an exclusive agreement with NASCAR to deliver audio and video feeds of races to fans over handheld devices at the track. That exclusivity meant it offered what amounted to a closed-circuit feed of the race that was faster than the TV broadcast available through satellite feeds used by teams.

Spotters have used the handheld devices at races for years, and crew chiefs recently began asking for a similar feed for larger TVs and tablets along pit road. The request led FanVision to develop a set-top box that would provide its broadcast feed to bigger screens at the track.

It began selling its FanVision Pro service this year for $17,500 a season. Pricing will vary based on what a team needs.

“The idea was to bring more real estate to teams, so they could move data around and see what they want to see,” said Ted Van Zelst, chief revenue officer at FanVision. “We know our delivery system works.”

Penske Racing began using the technology earlier this month at Talladega Superspeedway.

Geisler said the service hasn’t made a difference in any decisions the team has made to date, but he anticipates it will in the future and that those decisions could be the difference between winning and losing a race. He pointed to Phoenix International Raceway as an example of a track where the team expects to benefit from using FanVision Pro. When the team raced there in March, Geisler found himself frustrated with the TV feed he was watching and believed the lengthy delay made it difficult for crew chiefs to make snap decisions about whether the team’s drivers should take two or four tires during a pit stop.

“If we knew better in real time what [competing] cars are taking, two or four [tires], we could have made a better decision,” Geisler said. “Instead, we were relying on what a spotter or the driver told us.”

Geisler hopes that changes when the team returns to Phoenix in November.

Van Zelst said FanVision is in talks with four other teams about using the technology service. His goal is to have every team on pit road using it and have racetracks begin offering it in their suites.

A watershed moment in Major League Soccer’s 18-year history will occur this week, as the league is poised to announce new media rights deals that will bring in far more revenue and lead to a consistent, streamlined television schedule.

The eight-year deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision are priced five times higher than the average annual value of the league’s current media deals.

MLS Cup, which ESPN broadcast in 2013, will alternate between ESPN and Fox Sports.

ESPN and Fox will share the English-language rights to MLS and U.S. Soccer matches over the next eight years.
The two networks are paying a combined $75 million per year on average for those rights. MLS also signed a Spanish-language deal with Univision for an average of $15 million per year.

The combined average rights fee of $90 million per year represents a stark increase from the $18 million annual average the league receives in


SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand on MLS getting five times what it previously made from TV rights and the unique relationship between ESPN and Fox as they worked to shut out NBC

its current deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision. Those contracts expire after this season. (The networks this year are paying around $23 million under terms of the deals because of staggered annual price increases that are part of the contracts.)

The new deals include the rights to U.S. men’s national team matches and call for consistent days and times in the national programming of MLS match telecasts, something the league has never had before. Univision will have exclusive MLS broadcasts on Fridays, while ESPN and Fox Sports 1 will present games back-to-back on Sundays.

“This is the most comprehensive media rights partnership in the history of soccer in our country,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “That’s something we’re very proud of. It’s a statement about where the soccer market is and where Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer fit into the paradigm.”

The deals were signed May 1, ending an eight-month negotiating timeline that all executives involved described as the most protracted process they’ve encountered in their careers. PR staffs from the networks have been prepared to issue press releases announcing the deal since January. While the larger framework of the deal was hammered out early, negotiations slowed over the past three months as the networks and leagues negotiated everything from highlight rights to out-of-market rights.

MLS was adamant in its early strategy sessions; it was not interested in renewing the same TV packages and schedules it has had since signing deals with ESPN and Univision in 2007. MLS executives saw this deal as pivotal to the league’s future and wanted more.

Informal negotiations started over the summer, as Garber’s longtime friend Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures, and MLS President/Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott traveled to ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., and NBC’s offices in Stamford, Conn., to outline what the league wanted. The MLS executives purposely made their pitch as simple as possible, using a four-page deck to demonstrate how the league planned to grow.



 Minimum of 34 regular-season games, on an exclusive basis, on Sundays at 5 p.m. ET, primarily on ESPN2.
Distribution of MLS’s out-of-market package via ESPN platforms.
Will share with Fox Sports MLS Cup playoff matches outside of two Univision games.
Will alternate with Fox Sports in airing MLS Cup and the AT&T MLS All-Star Game each year.
Will share with Fox Sports all U.S. Soccer matches.
Digital rights across all platforms and devices for the games it televises.
Opportunity to televise the MLS SuperDraft and other marquee MLS events.
Opportunity for ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes Radio to air MLS matches.


 Minimum of 34 regular-season games, on an exclusive basis, on Sundays at 7 p.m. ET, primarily on Fox Sports 1.
 Will share with ESPN MLS Cup playoff matches outside of two Univision games.
 Will alternate with ESPN in airing MLS Cup and the AT&T MLS All-Star Game each year.
 Will share with ESPN all U.S. Soccer matches.
 Digital rights across all platforms and devices for the games it televises.
 Opportunity for Fox Sports Radio to broadcast MLS matches.


 Minimum of 34 regular-season games, on an exclusive basis, on Friday evenings either at 7 p.m. ET or 11 p.m. ET, primarily on UniMás.
Two MLS Cup playoff matches a season, on an exclusive basis, during the knockout round.
The AT&T MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup, exclusively in Spanish on Univision.
All U.S. Soccer men’s national team matches, and a commitment to televise a minimum of four U.S. women’s national team matches annually.
All MLS and U.S. Soccer matches on the Univision networks will include second audio program (SAP), providing viewers the option of viewing games in English. English audio also will be available for matches televised on Univision’s digital platforms.
Univision Deportes Network, Univision’s 24-hour sports network, will feature five to seven consecutive Friday doubleheaders in May and June that will be surrounded by two hours of MLS ancillary programming.
UDN will televise a weekly Sunday MLS wrapup program and a condensed MLS match of the week.
Univision obtains digital rights across all platforms and mobile devices for the games it televises.
Source: MLS

“We went out with a very simple deck to tell everyone, ‘Here’s what we’re building,’” Stevenson said. “We told the networks, ‘What we’re bringing you is the growth of a soccer nation.’ I don’t think there’s a closer relationship between a league and its national team than we have with U.S. Soccer.”

One page of the deck listed four tenets for the league, labeled as Key Priorities for Our Media Deal: Economics, Schedule, Growth of Our Fan Base, and Brand. Obviously, the money was important to MLS, but Stevenson said he focused more time outlining the league’s plans to increase TV ratings than he did putting a value on the packages.

“We have games this season on six different days with 21 different start times,” Stevenson said. “That needed to change. We also wanted our matches to be on TV when kids who play soccer could watch them.”

Negotiations picked up as soon as the league’s exclusive negotiating windows with ESPN and NBC closed in the fall.
ESPN’s 50-day window closed in the middle of October; NBC’s shorter negotiating period ended about then, as well.

At the same time, MLS was working on a deal with Univision.

MLS’s desires squared with what ESPN wanted. ESPN’s senior vice president of programming, Scott Guglielmino, called Stevenson in November to outline those ESPN targets: a game of the week and as many of the U.S. men’s national team games as were available.

ESPN was not, however, interested in claiming the entire package and would be willing to share it with another broadcaster.
That’s where Fox Sports came in. Even though Fox wasn’t a current rights holder, ESPN and MLS believed it would be a good partner. Stevenson called Fox Sports’ top brass to see if they would be interested.

The message from David Nathanson, general manager and chief operating officer of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, was that Fox was interested. Fox has worked well with ESPN on other packages, including the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big East deals. Nathanson told Stevenson that as long as the Fox MLS package was equal to ESPN’s and included those U.S. men’s national team games, Fox would be in.

Early in the negotiations, ESPN and Fox made it known that they would be willing to pay as much as $75 million per year, a figure that proved to be too rich for NBC. In early January, NBC Sports Group put out a statement announcing that it was pulling out of the bidding process. Stevenson said he continued to engage NBC after that point, but the Comcast-owned network was not a serious threat to retain the rights.

Garber spoke frequently with ESPN President John Skipper and Fox Networks Group President and COO Randy Freer during the process, but they left it to Stevenson, Abbott, Guglielmino and Nathanson to hammer out the details.
Most of the meetings took place in Stevenson’s nondescript office at MLS’s Manhattan headquarters. The executives negotiated tens of millions of dollars worth of media deals from a spartan office that had bare walls, modular furniture and a small circular table where the executives sat. A camouflage Fox Sports 1 baseball cap was perched on a cabinet in one corner.

Commissioner Don Garber spoke frequently with his counterparts at ESPN and Fox during the process.

ESPN and Fox executives were comfortable with the high price tag despite MLS’s disappointing TV ratings performance last year relative to 2012 (see chart). Considering the amount of new content the channels will receive in the new deals (ESPN will control the league’s out-of-market package and international rights, and Fox has extensive highlight rights), and factoring in the league’s continuing expansion and growth prospects as well, network executives do not feel as though they are overpaying.

“While national ratings have been something that hasn’t been going in the right direction over the last couple of years, we still believe in MLS,” Guglielmino said.

Nathanson agreed. “It’s definitely a growth proposition,” he said. “The packages are stronger. The way we’re programming it is going to be more impactful.”

In January, the networks’ top executives, including Freer and Skipper, descended on MLS’s office to work through some big issues. Garber and Evolution Media Capital’s Alan Gold also were in these meetings at MLS’s headquarters. The group hammered out enough details for the executives to know that a deal was close and they celebrated over dinner at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in New York.

While a finalized deal was still four months away, they knew at that time that the deal would be done. There was no turning back on what could end up being a defining agreement for the future of MLS.

Al Michaels was 35 when he made his famous “Do you believe in miracles?” U.S. hockey call at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

NBC’s top hockey announcer in Sochi earlier this year was Doc Emrick, who is 67.

That age gap highlights a consistent lament I hear from programming executives who worry about aging on-air talent as they try to attract younger advertiser-friendly audiences. These executives gripe that younger generations aren’t getting the same opportunities that a young Al Michaels had in 1980.

Of course, younger announcers today have many more opportunities than they did in 1980, thanks to the explosion of TV channels and digital platforms. But it’s become virtually unthinkable for anyone in their 30s to call a big event, such as U.S. hockey’s gold medal run in 1980.

The problem is twofold. On one hand, once announcers get these plumb positions, they obviously don’t want to give them up. In many cases, they shouldn’t. Take Emrick, for example. He is hockey’s best announcer and won a sports Emmy award last week for play-by-play.

On the other hand, viewers don’t like change. I’d like to hear more young voices calling games on TV. But personally, I was disappointed to see ESPN move the 74-year-old Brent Musburger off of its top college football game in favor of Chris Fowler, who is a youthful 51. There’s something to be said about the comfort of hearing “Big Game Brent.”

I reached out to NBC Sports Group’s Princell Hair last week to talk about what networks like his are doing to give more opportunities to more voices. As senior vice president of news and talent, Hair is the executive responsible for hiring and firing talent. He talked about a strategy that NBC uses to tap into on-air talent at its regional sports network for open national slots.

“The national guys don’t give up those seats easily,” Hair said. “When they do, I want us to be ready and have somebody that’s in the family, someone that we’ve been grooming, someone that can make a seamless transition from the regional to the network.”

Ever since Comcast’s acquisition of NBC became official two years ago, Hair has overseen this strategy, which he said is part of NBC’s “Symphony” initiative that NBCUniversal CEO and President Steve Burke put forth when Comcast’s NBC acquisition became official. That is a push to have all of NBC’s departments work more closely together.

“As we look at the next generation of reporters and anchors and play-by-play commentators and analysts, our regionals are a natural place for us to look,” he said. “I see that evolving.”

Hair has used Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic’s Julie Donaldson as a fill-in host on NBC Sports Network’s “Sports Dash,” as an online host during the Olympics and as a beach volleyball announcer. He tapped Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia’s Marshall Harris for some Olympic work. He has used Comcast SportsNet New England’s Carolyn Manno on everything from NBCSN’s “Sports Dash” to the Winter Olympics.

Donaldson, Harris and Manno all are in their 30s.

The moves seem obvious. NBC has available talent on the local level that would relish national exposure. But Hair recalls a planning meeting before the London Games when he suggested using some RSN talent to fill in some programming holes. At the time, the idea was unique. NBC’s executives quickly embraced it.

“That was really the first time where we were able to take advantage of the fact that we are this huge company with a vast array of talent,” he said. “Before, we really had to go out of house quite a bit in order to fill the talent needs.”

Hair says he relies mainly on a gut instinct to decide which RSN talent would fit best on a national stage. But he identified attributes all on-air announcers and reporters should share.

“They have to have a passion for sports,” he said. “While I’m watching their reels, I need to feel some sort of connection with them or some sort of connection with the story that they’re telling me. If you start from the most basic attributes of someone you’re watching on television — an anchor or a reporter — they obviously have to speak well. They obviously have to look that part — it is a visual medium.”

And if NBC’s strategy holds, when older announcers decide to retire, the next generation will be ready and capable to step in.

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

“We F%[*!^& Love Sports.”

That’s what it says — in English, with those symbols — in red, blue and green letters in Univision Deportes President Juan Carlos Rodriguez’s office at network headquarters in Miami. It was in that room that Univision and MLS on Oct. 21 began serious negotiations on a new deal for the league’s Spanish-language broadcasting rights.


SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand on MLS getting five times what it previously made from TV rights and the unique relationship between ESPN and Fox as they worked to shut out NBC

Univision has carried MLS matches since 2007. Rodriguez and Univision were determined to demonstrate how much they love MLS and U.S. Soccer.

Six months later, an agreement was reached on an eight-year, $120 million deal during a two-day retreat at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. Those discussions started in the early morning of April 24 and ended late in the evening of April 25.

“No one was leaving Miami without an agreement,” said Rodriguez of the climactic round of negotiations.

Over the two days, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served and dozens of bottles of Diet Coke were consumed. Representing Univision Deportes were five executives: Rodriguez; Glenn Dryfoos, senior vice president of business affairs; Eric Conrad, vice president of sports programming; Olek Loewenstein, vice president of planning; and Marco Liceaga, vice president of marketing and promotion.

MLS was represented by Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures; Mark Abbott, MLS president and deputy commissioner; Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing; and counsel from Proskauer Rose.

“There were a lot of times when we had to break to talk amongst ourselves or with our counsel,” Rodriguez said. “Same with MLS. It was a tough negotiation, but there was a real spirit in the room of doing something big.”

Rodriguez had already told MLS executives last summer that Univision wanted to continue its partnership with the league and the U.S. national teams. (SUM, MLS’s commercial arm, represents U.S. Soccer.) But the framework of a deal was constructed during the first formal discussion in October.

Rodriguez’s office is rectangular, with a round table in the middle, the profane declaration of Univision’s love for sports, and whiteboards covering large sections of the four walls. Rodriguez, Stevenson, and the other network and league executives took turns using markers to write on the boards about their expectations of a deal and partnership.
Rodriguez listed two priorities. His first scribble on the board read, “Long term.”

Stevenson agreed, noting that either a four-year, eight-year or 12-year agreement — trailing the cycle of men’s World Cups by one year, beginning in 2015 — made the most sense. An eight-year term was agreed to fairly quickly.
Rodriguez also wrote, “Exclusivity.”

Univision received plenty. For the next eight years, it will own Friday nights, exclusively broadcasting a minimum of 34 games each season on UniMás at 7 p.m. or 11 p.m. ET. It has the exclusive rights to two matches in the opening round of the playoffs, and the Spanish-language rights for MLS Cup, the MLS All-Star Game and all U.S. men’s national team matches. Univision also obtained digital rights across all platforms and mobile devices for the games it televises.

Besides the $15 million annual rights fee, MLS is receiving increased coverage on Univision’s networks, including two hours of “ancillary programming” around many of its Friday night telecasts and a weekly Sunday, one-hour MLS wrapup show. Univision also has pledged to include an MLS segment in all of its sports news shows and make MLS players a part of telecasts of its non-sports events, like the Latin Grammy Awards.

“Univision really wants to integrate MLS and U.S. Soccer into the network brand and culture,” Stevenson said. “That’s a big boost to our strategy to reach Hispanic audiences.”

Said Rodriguez: “I told MLS that ‘The Big U’ would be a very helpful resource for the league growing its business. We want to give the U.S. national team the same level of coverage that we give the Mexican national team. We believe that if the planets align, the U.S. is going to host the World Cup in 2026 or 2030.”

Univision will begin planning for a new era of MLS and U.S. Soccer coverage in 2015 after its coverage of the FIFA World Cup is complete this summer. Rodriguez, who joined Univision from Mexico’s Televisa Deportes in 2012, laughed when he was asked if he felt any pressure to prove that the eight-year commitment of money, resources and programming was a wise one.

“For the sake of my own long career at Univision,” said Rodriguez, “we’d better provide good results.”

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.