Major League Soccer viewership has grown, now it needs networks that pay extra

New York City FC forward Valentín Castellanos (11) passes the ball to 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 | Sportswire Icons | beautiful pictures

While other US sports leagues battle another Covid outbreak, Major League Soccer ended the 2021 season with some good news as they try to convince TV networks they pay $300 million. la every year to make its games.

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

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

The viewership report comes at a good time for MLS as the league looks for a significant boost from the networks. Industry sources suggest that MLS is looking at $300 million per season — up from about $90 million it brought in from ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision combined.

However, the MLS rights package can depreciate due to key aspects of its service.

“They’ll do well,” says Lee Berke of LHB Sports, a sports media consulting firm. “But there are things that are working for them and things that will probably slow their rise.”

New York City FC celebrates winning the 2021 MLS Cup 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 | Sportswire Icons | beautiful pictures

MLS utilizes the entire fleet

Always keep viewership in mind – as this is the most important metric in rights deals. MLS has had some exciting moments for the 2021 season, which the league can use to highlight growing fan interest.

Fox Sports aired the Thanksgiving Day playoff game between the Timbers and the Colorado Rapids, drawing average 1.8 million viewers on the Fox platform. It became the most watched MLS match online and had the highest MLS audience since April 2004.

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

For the 2021 regular season, MLS says it averaged 276,000 viewers for 31 regular-season games on ESPN channels, including ABC. This is up from an average of 233,000 viewers who watched 39 MLS games in 2020 on ESPN platforms.

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

“The ratings are linearly fine, but they still struggle compared to ratings for Liga MX or Premier League,” Berke said, referring to international tournaments.

MLS says it averages 284.00 viewers per game on the Spanish-speaking Univision network. But football viewers have shown more interest in watching international tournaments via the MLS.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, says on average 414,000 viewers for its Premier League soccer package for the 2020-21 season. And so far in the current EPL season, NBC Sports says the games are average 609,000 viewers on its channels.

Newspaper network agreed to pay $2.7 billion to retain the right to the American Premier League. That number is up from the $1 billion EPL received from the network in the previous deal.

Berke said the networks will pay premium royalties for football because the sport’s fanbase tends to be “younger and more tech-savvy.”

“That’s why you’re seeing a lot of Paramount + bids soccer pack“, he said, referring to Viacom’s streaming service.” That’s why you’ve seen the big money NBC paid to keep the Premier League. And that should work fine for MLS. “

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

“Years ago we went to our clubs and said all your local deals need to expire at the end of the day. [2022] “season,” Garber told reporters on December 7.

“All your streaming deals need to expire,” Garber added. “All your data transactions, all your sports betting transactions, everything that has to do with the consumer is now in one package that we can engage with the companies. Traditional media is transforming digitally, for new media companies.”

Does MLS have bargaining power?

The new MLS deal could be different from its current rights package, which former ESPN exec John Skipper once labeled a “future deal” and as “buy pork belly.”

Under 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 stock of US men’s national games.

The national team’s media rights were negotiated by Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of MLS. But the United States Soccer Federation, which operates the rights, ending its partnership with SUM last May. That means MLS can’t add those permissions to its new bundle.

It is not clear how that will affect the position of the MLS on the negotiating table. Media experts estimate the MLS could rake in nearly $200 million for rights because it loses US national rights.

“They have to balance the many factors that are enhancing the value of football against the fact that SUM’s involvement with the men’s and women’s teams is gone,” Berke said.

Berke added: “And the NFL made a lot of money for everyone,” adding that $100 billion deal last March.

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

Nell Redmond | AP

MLS add more content

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

A new month championship 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, as Liga MX can attract more 3 million viewers for games on Univision.

MLS will add TV markets in Charlotte in 2022, St. Louis in 2023 and is aiming for the 30th MLS franchise in Las Vegas Market. It will also leverage its rights to feature additional teams in its MLS Next Pro minor league operation.

The mini-tournament component can help streaming services create storytelling opportunities that can engage viewers. The concept helped Liberty Media-formula 1 expand its object over a Netflix series, for example.

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

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

“We have a lot of momentum compared to the regular season and the play-off viewership,” said Bacon. “And we have the favorable conditions for the 2026 World Cup,” which will take place in the US, Canada and Mexico.

When asked about how confident it is in attracting a beneficial media deal that will help stabilize MLS, Bacon said the league is “very enthusiastic about where we’re going to land.” Major League Soccer viewership has grown, now it needs networks that pay extra

Emma James

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