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MLS’s national television deals provided approximately $23 million from ESPN, Fox, HDNet and Univision in 2007. That amounts to less than three percent of the Premier League’s new three year, $850 million-a-year television rights deal.

But just because the big television dollars are not rolling in to MLS’ coffers doesn’t mean that there aren’t silver linings in these digital clouds.

MLS Is No Longer A Charity Case

$23 million may not be much, but the fact that it is anything is a positive for the league. Up until recently MLS had to front the costs of ESPN airing its games. Not only that, but the very fact that MLS even kept its ESPN deal through the lean years is probably mostly due to the fact that the marketing arm of MLS owned the English language rights to the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup.

In other words, for most of this decade, MLS was on ESPN for the same reason that the WNBA is on ESPN: as a quid pro quo for something that ESPN actually thought was valuable.

Soccer Ratings Compared to Other Sports

MLS appears to have turned the corner television wise however. ESPN bid directly on the 2010 and 2014 Cups. Its commitment to MLS now seems legitimate. And if you scratch the surface, its not that hard to see why.

  • The Super Bowl draws approximately 100 million viewers.
  • Approximately 14.6 million watched Game 1 of the 2008 World Series.
  • The first fifteen games of the 2009 NBA playoffs have averaged 2.968 million viewers.
  • Anaheim’s series-ending victory over Ottawa in the Stanley Cup last year was watched by 2,005,000 households.

Last February, the United States played Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. The Univision broadcast of that game was watched by 10.7 million viewers. It was the most watched sporting event in the history of Spanish-language television.

The average audience of 5.9 million made it the most-watched sporting event for the season to date on Spanish-language television and the average audience of 1.2 million on ESPN2 made it the most-watched World Cup qualifier in history on that network.(More…)

The game’s combined english/spanish broadcast attracted just over half of the 13.384 million viewers who turned into the first game of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Clearly there is a market for soccer on television in the United States. Many cable/satellite sports packages carry soccer only channels such as Fox Soccer and GolTV. That these channels exist and do well however demonstrates the dilemma which MLS faces.

Show Me the Television Money

Fox Soccer Channel recently agreed to pay $10 million annually for three years of UEFA Champions League broadcast rights. ABC/ESPN and Univision agreed to pay a combined $325 million for English and Spanish U.S. television rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

The 2009 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona was watched by 1.5 million homes in the United States. Not bad for a Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm. (More…)

That’s $10 million annually for a handful of games which will air on Tuesday afternoons. It’s $325 million for two months worth of soccer. These rights deals are evidence that there is a televion market for soccer in America. That there is a market for good soccer in America. Far too often, MLS is not good soccer.

Soccer fans in this country are increasingly sophisticated, said Garber, and M.L.S. has not been able to keep pace with their demands. “Fans want to see stars. They want more games on TV and they want an increased quality of play.” (More…)

While MLS fans would have to be considered soccer fans, clearly not all American soccer fans are MLS fans. MLS fans tend to underestimate how much the low quality of some MLS matches affects it’s popularity here amongst people who love the sport but not the league.

To compete against the bigger leagues in the world, MLS needs better players. To get better players, MLS needs to increase revenue. Since attendance and sponsorship deals are only going to take MLS so far, the league needs to focus on increasing television revenue.

MLS faces something of a chicken-and-egg problem with increasing its television rights fees however: Quality comes before television revenues, but television revenues are needed to increase the quality of play.

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