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Volume 21 No. 39
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MLS makes headway with international deals

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

When MLS announced in October that it had partnered with IMG to market and distribute its global media rights, MLS Business Ventures President and Managing Director Gary Stevenson noted that “the worldwide interest in the league is at an all-time high and growing dramatically.”

Less than a month into the 2015 MLS season, that sentiment appears to have rung true. After signing four-year multimedia deals with Sky Sports and Eurosport in recent weeks, MLS is eyeing additional deals around the globe, including in Latin and South America, Africa, and Asia.

Europe’s Sky Sports will feature MLS coverage in the summer, keying on the arrival of players like Frank Lampard.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“To now have Sky Sports and Eurosport broadcasting live matches and providing ancillary coverage of MLS, these are two big milestones in our league history,” Stevenson said last week. “These agreements make it clear that fans around the world are recognizing MLS as an important league on the worldwide soccer scene.”

MLS does not plan to stop there. The league has signed a multiyear deal with Abu Dhabi Sports Channels to show at least two games a week on its pay and free-to-air channels, as well as offering live digital streaming of games. The network, which reaches viewers across the Middle East and Northern Africa, also will show the league’s all-star game, playoffs and MLS Cup.

The league was also expected to formally announce this past weekend a multiyear deal with Brazilian cable service Globosat for rights to show games in that country that are not already covered by ESPN Brasil. Any game covered by the network as a result of its national deal signed with the league is pushed to its outside affiliates as well.

Stevenson pointed to the Brazilian roots of the ownership group of Orlando City SC and Brazilian star Kaka, who plays for Orlando City, as reasons for the interest in MLS in Brazil.

While Stevenson declined to comment on the fiscal terms of any of the global deals, he said MLS believes that “our content has value, both economic value and value for the networks in terms of placement.” He said announcements of additional global media deals should come over the course of the 2015 season.

STEVENSON
Previously, MLS sold its international TV rights to MP & Silva, with a deal in 2008 that was then valued at eight figures. That deal was extended in 2012 to run through the end of 2014. Before that, ESPN sold international syndication rights for MLS games per the terms of its 2006 rights agreement with the league.

For all of the new international broadcast partners, MLS and IMG are co-producing a world feed of the games and delivering that to the partners. From that point, each broadcast partner handles its own ad sales and localization of the coverage.

For Sky Sports and Eurosport, both networks believe MLS fits in well with their overall broadcast plans.

“In many of our territories, we’re showing German Bundesliga and then we’re able to shift right into MLS and extend our football story throughout the day,” Eurosport CEO Peter Hutton said. “But it not only works for us now in terms of where the content can be shown live, but also where we believe the league can be in comparison to other leagues around the world.”

Hutton said the network’s live broadcasts of MLS games have received more than 8 million viewers over the course of the first three weeks of the season. Eurosport’s deal with MLS allows for up to four matches to be broadcast live each weekend, and subscribers are able to view all matches each week on the network’s online subscription service. Eurosport broadcasts to 125 million homes in 52 countries across Europe.

Orlando City’s Kaka has stirred MLS interest in Brazil.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“As the European audience begins to further identify the MLS brand and its players, it can only help to improve the league,” Hutton said. “Right now, the best way is through the poster boys like David Villa and Kaka, who we’ve filmed with, but also with the local players who have European roots — so, for example, highlighting the French players for those viewers in France.”

Sky Sports is taking a similar approach with MLS, adding it to the larger pool of soccer-related content for which it already has broadcast rights, said Gary Hughes, head of football for the network.

“The main appeal for us [to acquire the rights] is that it increases our big football portfolio and gives us access to a league we’ve never had before,” Hughes said. “Ultimately, we want to extend our football narrative, and if we can put live football on television, people will watch.”

The network was previously broadcasting extra Spanish league matches or repeats of Barclays Premier League matches during the Sunday time slot where MLS now is being shown live, he said.

Hughes said since the deal with MLS is still “in its early days,” viewership for MLS matches is still taking hold. He noted that with English international players Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard joining the league over the summer, that will be a time for MLS to shine on the network.

“For Sky, June and July are rather barren in terms of our football programming, so MLS will be the main league we feature during that time period,” Hughes said, adding that this is the first non-European soccer deal the network has signed.

Hughes said former MLS and global soccer player Thierry Henry, now with Sky Sports, has been an invaluable resource thus far in regard to commenting on the league and providing a perspective on its teams and players. Henry did a preview piece on the league before the season.

Hughes said, however, that there are no plans for the network to cover the league on the ground in the United States and that it will continue to just take the provided broadcast feed.

“Obviously, never say never, and if LA Galaxy plays NYCFC in the final with Lampard and Gerrard starring we might, but we have clear plans to cover the league from our studios in the U.K.,” he said.