Major League Soccer Viewership Has Soared, Now It Needs Networks To Pay More

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos (11) passes the ball forward against Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara (21) 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

As other U.S. sports leagues battle another Covid outbreak, Major League Soccer ended the 2021 season on good news as it tries to convince TV networks to pay $300 million a year to carry its games.

ESPN said the 2021 MLS Cup on ABC averaged 1.14 million viewers, peaking at 1.6 million viewers, making it the fifth most watched audience for an MLS Cup on a Disney network since 2009. New York City FC defeated the Portland Timbers in a penalty shootout (4-2) to win their first championship.

That’s more than the average 1.07 million viewers who watched the 2020 game on Fox Sports last year, and a 38% increase over the average 825,000 viewers for the 2019 game.

The viewership report comes at a good time for MLS as the league seeks a significant increase in networks. Industry sources suggest MLS is seeking $300 million a season — an increase from the roughly $90 million it brings in from ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision combined.

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

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

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 utilizes entire fleet

Let’s stay on the viewer front, because this is the most critical metric in rights deals. MLS had some tense moments ahead of the 2021 season, which the league can use to highlight increased fan interest.

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

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

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

And on Fox channels, MLS said viewership is up 4% from the 2020 season.

“The classifications were linear in order, but they are still struggling compared to the classifications for Liga MX or Premier League,” Berke said, referring to international competitions.

MLS said it averaged 284.00 viewers per game on the Spanish-language network Univision. But football viewers have shown more interest in consuming international competitions than MLS.

NBCUniversal, CNBC’s parent company, said it averaged 414,000 viewers for its English Premier League football package for the 2020-21 season. And so far on the current season of EPL, NBC Sports said that games averaged 609,000 viewers on its TV channels.

The network reportedly agreed to pay $2.7 billion to retain US Premier League rights. That figure is higher than the $1 billion EPL received from the network in the previous agreement.

Berke said networks pay premium rights to football because the sport’s fans are “younger and more tech-savvy.”

“That’s why you see Paramount+ aggressively bidding on various international football packages,” he said, referring to Viacom’s streaming service. “That’s why you saw the huge bump that NBC paid to keep the Premier League. And that will work well for MLS.”

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

“Many years ago we went to our clubs and said, all your local deals have to expire at the end of the month.” [2022] season,” Garber told reporters on Dec.

“All your streaming deals should expire,” Garber added. “All your data deals, all your sports betting, everything that has a consumer contact, is now all in one package that we can engage with traditional media companies that are digitally transforming themselves, into new media companies.”

Does MLS have bargaining power?

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

In the current deal, ESPN owns the rights to most MLS games and rotates All-Star games and MLS Cup events with Fox. The companies also share an inventory of the American men’s national competitions.

The national team’s media rights were negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS. But the American Football Federation, which controls the rights, ended its partnership with SUM last May. That means MLS cannot add those permissions to its new package.

It’s unclear how that will affect MLS’s position at the negotiating table. Media experts estimate that MLS could get closer to $200 million for rights as it lost US national rights.

“They need to strike a balance between the range of factors that increase the value of football versus the fact that the SUM involvement with the men’s and women’s teams is gone,” Berke said.

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

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

Nell Redmond | AP

MLS adds more content

MLS could make up for the loss of national team rights with the new Leagues Cup format.

The new one-month championship tournament kicks off in 2023 and all MLS teams will play against clubs from the Mexican Liga MX league. MLS can capitalize on the popularity of Liga MX in the US, as Liga MX can attract more than 3 million viewers for games on Univision.

MLS will add TV markets in Charlotte in 2022, St. Louis in 2023 and is looking at a 30th MLS franchise in the Las Vegas market. It is also using its rights to include additional teams in its MLS Next Pro minor league operation.

The minor league component can help streaming services create storytelling opportunities that can attract viewers. The concept helped Liberty Media-owned Formula 1 expand its audience through, say, a Netflix series.

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

Bacon said MLS had “numerous and productive discussions with every rights distributor,” though he declined to name specific networks. He also agreed with Garber’s comments that a new agreement would be reached by the end of the first quarter in 2022.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum from our regular season and playoff viewership,” Bacon said. “And we have tailwinds for the 2026 World Cup,” which will be played in the US, Canada and Mexico.

When asked about the confidence level of luring a favorable media deal that will help stabilize MLS, Bacon said the league is “very excited about where we will land”.

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