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Volume 21 No. 34
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New TV deals bring appointment viewing

Kickoff between the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire on Friday marks the start of the league’s new eight-year television deals with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision.

The deals, which are worth an average of $90 million a season, a dramatic jump from the $18 million average MLS received over the life of the previous deals, represent the potential the three networks see in a league that has struggled for viewers.

Fixed broadcast times should be more appealing to viewers.
Photo by: Getty Images
“Although it’s not the largest audience right now, we think there’s plenty of upside in trying to grow that younger demographic,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming and X Games.

ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 240,000 viewers for regular-season MLS games last season, ESPN Deportes averaged 42,000, and NBC Sports Network averaged 141,000.

This season, ESPN, Fox and Univision will each televise more than 30 games, with 34 regular-season matches on ESPN networks (31 on ESPN2, one on ESPN, one on ESPNews, one still to be determined), 34 on Fox Sports (33 on FS1, one on FS2), and 36 on Univision (25 on UniMas, 11 on Univision Deportes).

Univision will show two MLS playoff games, while ESPN and Fox will split the remainder and alternate years airing the MLS Cup and the MLS All-Star Game. (Univision will show both each season.)

MLS executives wanted to create fixed times when the networks would show games in an effort to draw viewers, and the new deals create destination-viewing windows.

The majority of Univision’s matches will air on Fridays at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. on UniMas, and 8 and 10 p.m. on Univision Deportes. ESPN’s games will start at 5 p.m. on Sundays, followed immediately at 7 p.m. by a match on Fox Sports. It’s a concerted effort by the three networks and the league to work together, with each network’s talent promoting games airing elsewhere.

“We’re competitors. There’s no doubt about it, but when it comes to raising interest in the game, we’re all completely aligned,” said David Nathanson, general manager and chief operating officer of FS1 and FS2.

The new deals also introduce flex scheduling during the penultimate week of the season and MLS Decision Day on

the final Sunday. That week, all five Eastern Conference games will kick off at 5 p.m., with FS1 airing one. The five Western Conference matches will follow at 7 p.m. and ESPN2 will air one of those matches.

All three networks plan to increase their coverage of MLS on other programs as well. ESPN plans to focus significant resources on ESPN FC and have ESPN FC-branded content during its halftime shows. Univision Deportes is airing “Somos MLS,” a weekly MLS show, Sunday nights at 10 p.m.

MLS sponsors Heineken, Continental Tire, AdvoCare and Johnson & Johnson will feature ads during the broadcasts on some or all of the networks. AdvoCare will sponsor the sideline reporter segments on Univision and Fox Sports.
Heineken will sponsor ESPN’s “Moment of the Match,” with the “Continental Tire Analysts’ Corner” and AT&T “Goal of the Week” appearing on the network as well. New sponsors are expected to sign on. Fox Sports says it is closing in on deals in the luxury import auto, telecom and financial categories.

As MLS enters its third decade, it wants to become a force in the U.S. sports landscape. The league sees the television slate in 2015 and beyond as a step in that direction.

“These deals are not about a quick fix for ratings, but rather a long-term investment and partnership to grow the sport of soccer in the United States,” said Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures.

Noah Davis is a writer in New York.