Major League Soccer viewership is up, now it needs networks to pay more

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

Brian Murphy | Icon Sportswear | Getty Images

While other US sports leagues are battling the outbreak of the Covid virus again, the Major League Soccer ended the 2021 season with some good news as it tries to convince television networks that they must pay $ 300 million annually to do their games.

ESPN said this week that the 2021 MLS Cup on ABC averaged 1.14 million viewers, peaking at 1.6 million, serving the fifth-most-watched MLS Cup audience on the Disney-owned network since 2009. The New York City team beat Team Portland Timbers in the penalty shootout (4-2) to win their first championship.

That’s up from the average 1.07 million viewers who watched the 2020 game on Fox Sports last year, and up 38% from the 825,000 average viewer for the 2019 game.

The viewing report arrives at a good time for MLS as the league seeks a significant increase in networking. Industry sources indicate that MLS is seeking $300 million per season — an increase from the roughly $90 million it earns from ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision combined.

But, the MLS rights package can be discounted due to key aspects of its offering.

They will do a good job,” Burke told me of LHB Sports, a sports media consultancy. “But there are things that work in their favor and things that will reduce their increase.”

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

Brian Murphy | Icon Sportswear | Getty Images

MLS benefits the entire fleet

Let’s stay ahead of viewers – because it’s the most important metric in rights deals. MLS has had some exciting moments in its 2021 season, which the league can use to highlight the growing fan interest.

Fox Sports broadcast a Thanksgiving Day playoff between Timbers and Colorado Rapids, which drew an average of 1.8 million viewers on Fox platforms. This has become the most watched MLS game on the network and the highest-grossing MLS audience since April 2004.

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

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

And on Fox channels, MLS said viewership increased 4% compared to the 2020 season.

“The ratings were good in terms of linearity, but it still struggled compared to the ratings of Liga MX or the Premier League,” Burke said, referring to the international tournaments.

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 tournaments on MLS.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, said it averaged 414,000 viewers for the Premier League soccer package for the 2020-21 season. So far in the current season of the EPL, NBC Sports said the games have averaged 609,000 viewers across its TV channels.

The network has reportedly agreed to pay $2.7 billion to retain the rights to the Premier League in the United States. This number is higher than the $1 billion received from the network in the previous agreement.

Burke said the networks would pay premium football rights fees because the sport’s fan base tends to be “younger and more technically savvy”.

“This is why you see Paramount+ aggressively bidding for a variety of international football packages,” he said, referring to Viacom’s streaming service. “That’s why you’ve seen the huge rise that NBC has paid to keep the Premier League. And that’s going to work well for MLS.”

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

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

“All broadcast deals should expire,” Garber added. “All of your data deals, all of your sports betting deals, everything that has to do with the consumer is now in a package that we can handle with traditional media companies transforming themselves digitally, into new media companies.”

Does MLS Have Bargaining Power?

The new MLS agreement may differ from its current package of rights, which former ESPN chief John Skipper once described as a “future deal” and like “buying pork bellies.”

In the current deal, ESPN owns the rights to most MLS games and alternates All-Star matches and MLS Cup events with Fox. The companies also share the US National Men’s Toy Inventory.

The media rights for the team were negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS. But the US Soccer Federation, which administers the rights, ended its 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’ position at the negotiating table. Media critics estimate that MLS could approach $200 million for the rights since it lost US national rights.

“They have to balance the set of factors that enhance the value of football against the fact that SUM’s involvement with the men’s and women’s team no longer exists,” Burke said.

“The NFL has taken a lot of money off the table for everyone,” Burke added, referring to a more than $100 billion professional football deal last March.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, left, and Charlotte MLS owner David Tepper announced that Major League Soccer will be coming to Charlotte in 2021 at an event in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tuesday, December 17, 2019.

Neil Redmond | AP

MLS adds more content

MLS can compensate for the loss of rights to the national team by coordinating the new League Cup.

The new month-long tournament begins in 2023 and will feature all MLS teams playing against clubs from Mexico’s Liga MX. MLS can capitalize on the popularity of Liga MX in the US, where Liga MX can attract more than 3 million viewers of games on Univision.

MLS will add television markets in Charlotte in 2022, St. Louis in 2023 and is looking forward to the 30th MLS franchise in the Las Vegas market. It will also benefit from its rights to feature additional teams in the MLS Next Pro Minor League process.

The minor league component can help streaming services create storytelling opportunities, which can attract viewers. This concept helped Formula 1 owned by Liberty Media to expand its audience via the Netflix series, for example.

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

Bacon said that MLS had “numerous and productive discussions with each 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 have a lot of momentum from the regular season and the knockout match,” Bacon said. “And we have the tailwind for the 2026 World Cup,” which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

When asked about the level of confidence in attracting a favorable media deal that would help stabilize MLS, Bacon said the league is “very excited about where we’re going to land”.

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