Main League Soccer viewership is up, now it wants networks to pay extra

New York City FC striker Valentín Castellanos (11) plays the ball forward against Portland Timbers midfielder in the MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC on December 11, 2021 at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon Diego Chara (21).

Brian Murphy | Sportswire icon | Getty Images

While other US sports leagues battle another Covid outbreak, Major League Soccer ended its 2021 season on some good news as it tries to convince TV networks to pay $ 300 million a year to broadcast their games numbers.

ESPN said this week the 2021 MLS Cup averaged on ABC 1.14 million viewers, with a high of 1.6 million viewers, the fifth most viewed viewer for an MLS Cup on a Disney-owned broadcaster since 2009. New York City FC defeated the Portland Timbers on penalties (4-2) to win their first championship.

That’s an increase from the 1.07 million average viewers who saw the 2020 game at Fox Sports last year, and 38% from an average of 825,000 viewers for the 2019 game.

The audience report comes at a good time for MLS as the league is looking for a significant boost from the broadcasters. Industry sources suggest that MLS is aiming for $ 300 million per season – versus the roughly $ 90 million it brings in from ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision combined.

However, the MLS rights package could be devalued due to important aspects of its offering.

“You will do well,” said Lee Berke of LHB Sports, a sports media consultancy. “But there are things that will work for them and things that may reduce their surge.”

New York City FC celebrates winning the 2021 MLS Cup during the MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and New York City FC on December 11, 2021 at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.

Brian Murphy | Sportswire icon | Getty Images

MLS uses the entire fleet

Let’s stay at the front of the audience figures – it is the most critical metric in rights business. The MLS had some exciting moments for the 2021 season that the league can use to highlight the increased fan interest.

Fox Sports broadcast the Thanksgiving Day playoff game between the Timbers and Colorado Rapids, which was average 1.8 million viewers on Fox platforms. It became the most watched MLS game on the network and the highest MLS audience since April 2004.

That year, the then 14-year-old soccer star Freddy Adu made his MLS debut with DC United at RFK Stadium against the San Jose Earthquakes. The competition drew an average of 1.97 million viewers.

For the 2021 regular season, MLS said it had an average of 276,000 viewers for 31 regular season games on ESPN channels, including ABC. That’s more than the average of 233,000 viewers who consumed 39 MLS games on ESPN platforms in 2020.

And on Fox Channels, MLS said viewership was up 4% compared to the 2020 season.

“The ratings were okay for linearity, but they still have difficulty comparing to ratings for MX league or Premier League, “said Berke, referring to international leagues.

MLS said it had an average of 284.00 viewers per game on the Spanish-speaking network Univision. But soccer viewers have shown more interest in consuming international leagues through MLS.

NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company, said it was average 414,000 spectators for the English Premier League football package for the 2020/21 season. And for EPL’s current season so far, NBC Sports has said the games have been average 609,000 spectators through its TV channels.

The network supposedly ready to pay $ 2.7 billion retain US Premier League rights. That number is higher than the $ 1 billion EPL the network received in the previous agreement.

Berke said the networks will pay premium rights fees for soccer because the sport’s fan base is typically “younger and more tech-savvy”.

“That’s why you see Paramount + aggressively bidding on a wide variety of international offerings Football packages“He said, referring to Viacom’s streaming service. “That’s why you saw the huge step up NBC paid to keep the Premier League. And that will work well for MLS. “

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said all MLS content, including games in local markets and the league’s data rights, will be used for the 2023 media package.

“Many years ago we went to our clubs and said that all of your local deals had to expire by the end of the year [2022] Season, “Garber told reporters on December 7th.

“All of your streaming deals need to expire,” Garber added. “All of your data deals, all of your sports betting deals, everything that comes in contact with a consumer are now in one package that we can share with traditional media companies that are digitally transforming into new media companies.”

Does MLS have bargaining power?

The new MLS agreement may differ from its current rights package, which the former ESPN boss John Skipper once called a “futures deal” and how “Buy pork bellies.”

In the current deal, ESPN has the rights to most MLS games and rotates all-star games and MLS Cup events with Fox. The companies also share a set of US men’s national games.

The media rights for the national team were negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of the MLS. But the U.S. football association that exercises the rights ended his partnership with SUM last May. This means that MLS cannot add these rights to its new package.

It is unclear how this will affect MLS’s position at the negotiating table. Media experts estimate that MLS could approach $ 200 million in rights as it lost US national rights.

“You have to weigh the variety of factors that add value to football against the fact that SUM commitment is no longer there on the men’s and women’s teams,” said Berke.

“And the NFL took a lot of money off the table,” added Berke, referring to the more than $ 100 billion deal last March.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber (left) and Charlotte MLS owner David Tepper announce that Major League Soccer 2021 will come to Charlotte at an event in Charlotte, NC on Tuesday, December 17, 2019.

Nell Redmond | AP

MLS adds more content

The MLS could make up for the loss of national team rights with its new league cup format.

The new month Championship tournament starts in 2023 and all MLS teams will play against clubs from the Mexican League MX. MLS can benefit from the popularity of Liga MX in the US as Liga MX has more than 3 million viewers for games on Univision.

MLS will add TV stores in Charlotte in 2022 and St. Louis in 2023 and plan a 30th MLS franchise in the US Las Vegas Market. It will also use its rights to add additional teams to its MLS Next Pro Minor League operation.

The minor league component could help streaming services create storytelling opportunities that can attract viewers. The concept helped Liberty Media– own Formula 1 expand its audience about a Netflix series, for example.

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Seth Bacon, senior vice president of media at MLS, said this MLS offering was “a package for the 21st century media landscape.”

Bacon said MLS had “numerous and productive conversations with every rights agent” despite refusing to identify any particular networks. He also agreed with Garber’s comments that a new agreement would be reached by the end of the first quarter of 2022.

“We got a lot of momentum from our regular season and our playoff spectators,” said Bacon. “And we have the tailwind of the 2026 World Cup,” which will be held in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

When asked about confidence in attracting a cheap media deal that will help stabilize MLS, Bacon said the league was “very excited about where we’re going to end up”.