Major League Soccer scores $720M in new TV deals with ESPN, Fox, Univision

Major League Soccer inked new TV deals, netting eight-year rights agreements with ESPN and Fox for English-language and Univision for Spanish-language rights. The deals, which run through 2022, are the same length as Fox's contract with FIFA to show the World Cup and many other international competitions.

According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN and Fox will pay a combined $75 million a year, and Univision will pay $15 million a year. That adds up to $90 million a year for eight years, a total of $720 million.

The deals give ESPN and Fox the rights to air Spanish-language versions on ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes, respectively, for the games that air on the English channels. Univision's deal for Spanish-language rights is separate.

"We wanted partners that would align without brand," said MLS commissioner Dan Garber said during a press conference announcing the new partnerships on Monday. "Partners that were committed to the domestic game and committed to supporting our league."

All three TV partners will feature an exclusive MLS Match of the Week. ESPN and Fox Sports 1 will air Sunday doubleheaders back-to-back at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET, while the Univision family of networks will televise a game of the week on Friday evenings--primarily on UniMás--and a wrap-up show on Sundays. More than 125 MLS matches will be televised annually on the three networks.

The new deals give ESPN a crucial soccer presence as the network hands off World Cup rights to Fox this year following this summer's World Cup in Brazil. The deal also marks a return to the league for Fox after three years. Univision will extend its relationship with MLS to 20 years over the life of the deal.

"It's a futures deal," John Skipper, the president of ESPN, said Monday at the news conference announcing the new pacts "We're buying pork bellies. We think they'll become more valuable over time."

But the MLS's viewership under the current contract is a mixed bag. On ESPN and ESPN2, viewership fell from 311,000 in 2012 to 220,000 last season. NBCSN's viewership fell from 122,000 in 2012 to 112,000 last season. But viewership has rebounded to 215,000 through seven games this season, thanks in part to English Premier League games acting as the lead-in to MLS four times.

On Univision's UniMas (formerly TeleFutura) and Galavision networks, viewership more than doubled in 2013 to 135,000. This season, UniMas and Univision Deportes are averaging 136,000 viewers, according to data from the The New York Times. Executives from Fox and ESPN remained bullish.

"We have a loyal and rabid fan base for M.L.S.," Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports, said. "We intend to expand that reach." Said Skipper: "We reach 115 million fans every week. It's a question of where we turn on the promotional fire hose."

For more:
- the New York Times has this story
- Forbes has this story
- Broadcasting & Cable has this story

Related articles:
Industry split on whether NBC overpaid for Olympics
Regional sports channel rights muddle Comcast-TWC merger, drive up costs across industry
Univision CEO says Comcast-TWC merger would hurt Hispanic TV viewers