As TV Deals Expire, Major League Soccer Fields Smaller Offers From ESPN, Fox Sports

Major League Soccer believes it scored a goal when it sold its streaming rights to Apple, but it’ll cost the league when it comes to US broadcast fees.

MLS celebrated its agreement last month with Apple TV+ for $250 million annually over 10 years, a figure that doesn’t include certain broadcast expenses to be shouldered by the league. But the deal will punch a deep dent into how much it can expect for media rights to linear TV games, according to media analysts and people familiar with the negotiations. they told Forbes that ESPN is offering a four-year deal worth about $40 million total to broadcast up to 26 regular-season contests per year, MLS playoff games, and rotate two MLS Cups. Fox Sports is also interested in retaining MLS rights but would pay only $7 million per season, the people said. Univision could also renew MLS rights for Spanish-language broadcasts, according to an industry source.

The people spoke to Forbes on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about private negotiations.

In the current TV agreement, which expires this year, Fox and ESPN pay MLS a combined $75 million a year and Univision pays roughly $15 million annually. Of that amount, MLS estimates $25 million went to the US Soccer Federation for national team TV rights. Therefore, it currently makes just $65 million in TV rights fees from networks.

Officials at Fox, ESPN and Univision declined to comment.

The drop in value for MLS linear rights isn’t surprising. The league can no longer offer exclusivity to networks after it agreed to the production partnership with Apple in June. That deal includes all MLS content around national and local games. In addition, MLS will be responsible for costs associated with the production of the games.

That means, factoring in the expenses, MLS could make less than the reported $250 million figure. MLS was initially seeking a $300 million rights package.

Another blow to the league’s media value: it no longer bundles content with US men’s and women’s national soccer teams. In March 2022, Warner Bros. Discovery-owned Turner Sports agreed to an eight-year deal to take over national-team TV rights starting in 2023. That the deal that reportedly pays the soccer federation around $25 million annually. USSF split from its partnership with Soccer United Marketing, an MLS-run commercial marketing firm, in May 2021. The firm previously negotiated deals for national teams.

Lee Berke, chief executive of sports media consultancy LHB Sports, said MLS keeping a presence on networks makes sense despite the lack of exclusivity. And ESPN still offers the best reach among sports fans. The problem, Berke said, is “some of your viewership is going to be siphoned off nationally” because networks are required to simulcast games with Apple.

MLS trails soccer leagues like the Premier League and Mexico’s Liga MX among US viewership. MLS is averaging 259,000 viewers as of July 17, according to measurement company Nielsen. That’s down from an average 287,000 through the same number of matches in 2021. In addition, the league averaged roughly 273,000 viewers over the last two years through the same amount of games across English-language networks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, FOX, FS1 ).

Premier League averaged 507,000 viewers for its 2021-22 season on NBC Sports platforms. That’s up 21% from the 2020-21 season, according to NBCUniversal. Premier League renewed its rights deal with NBC for a reported $2 billion in November 2021.

An MLS spokesperson declined to comment on the figures for its broadcast rights.

In the weeks following MLS’ agreement with Apple, sports executives offered mixed reactions. One executive praised the league’s forward thinking around the future distribution of live sports, especially as cable subscribers further decline and global streaming audiences grow. But others suggested interest in MLS would suffer in the short-term due to limited exposure on linear TV.

“You can’t make a judgment yet,” Berke says. Instead, he advised waiting until the 2024 MLS season. By then, subscription numbers would offer a better gauge of interest in MLS on Apple’s platform, he says.

“The advantage they have: Apple TV is already in place so that distribution is there, and they can piggyback on that,” Berke says.

Apple also struck a streaming deal with Major League Baseball in March 2022. ForbesMike Ozanian reported that agreement is worth $85 million annually over seven years.

The impact new media deals will have on MLS team valuations is unclear. The price tag for MLS franchises average $500 million, according to Sportico, a website that reports sports business transactions. That’s up from $313 million, which Forbes last calculated in 2019. Forbes will release new, comprehensive MLS valuations later this year.


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