What D.C. United’s streaming experiment can teach about soccer’s TV future

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D.C. United tried to cut its own cord, and wound up scoring an own goal.

But the failure of that Major League Soccer franchise to make streaming-only match coverage work doesn’t mean that pro soccer will stick to traditional TV deals.

When Washington’s MLS team announced in January that it had turned its back on existing regional sports networks to sign a four-year deal to stream most matches, that reportedly $12 million deal looked like a potential turning point for sports video.

But the new arrangement with a streaming service called FloSports quickly turned sour. United fans griped at the $8.99 monthly price—discounted to $5.99 for season-ticket holders and members of its three major supporters clubs—and then at the performance of FloSports.

“The broadcast would drop,” said James Lambert, president of the Screaming Eagles supporters’ group. “People are probably willing to put up with it once, and the second time it happens they’re done.”

He also critiqued the FloSports interface—“It was hard to find your content. You had to dig through multiple menus”—and the lack of a promised Spanish-language channel.

Lambert added that the experience was even worst at bars, thanks to the lack of support for sending the same stream to multiple TVs. “So you can’t have 10 TVs on at the bar at the game with the sound because they’re unsynchronized,” he recalled. “It was killing the bars.”

FloSports declined to comment.

D.C. United gave up on this experiment in October, announcing that it would stream its final home match at its own site, and would announce 2020 season broadcast plans “in due course.”

At the end of October, D.C. United chief executive Jason Levien told the Washington Post’s Steven Goff that the club was talking to traditional and streaming services for 2020 coverage. The team did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

But the future of soccer on TV is unlikely to look like the past, in the nation’s capital or elsewhere. MLS has already told franchises not to sign TV carriage deals going beyond 2022, the Sports Business Journal reported in March. That will free the league up to evaluate new distribution models as it continues to open new franchises.

“That does set the league up well,” said Derek Aframe, executive vice president of marketing and consulting at Octagon, a sports and entertainment consultancy.

“MLS is an up and coming sport in the US, and that makes it ripe for experimentation with new partners and new forms of distribution,” said Adam Gajo, a research analyst with S&P Global.

Aframe suggested that MLS would want to obtain a league-wide TV rights deal. “I think one scenario that MLS is looking at is that you centralize and operate as a full suite or package of games,” he said.

He compared that to the networks for the Big Ten and Pac 12 college athletic conferences—available both on traditional pay-TV bundles and linear over-the-top services.

Aframe and Gajo were both skeptical of future subscription-only, standalone deals, both because of the lower revenue possibilities and the obstacle that would pose to drawing new fans. Gajo suggested that any direct-to-customer service would have to offer a much more closer connection to fans to succeed.

“It makes sense as to why they are going direct to them, like I mentioned, cutting out the middle man, adding value by giving them deeper access than they have ever had before, combining the viewing experience with the culture and the tradition of actually being part of the franchise’s ‘family,” he said.

The Screaming Eagles’ Lambert, meanwhile, said most D.C. United fans would rather not have an extra subscription to pay.

“People want to be able to access the team on a platform that they already have,” he said. “That’s either something that’s on a standard cable package or something that is like an ESPN+ that many sports fans are going to have anyway that’s going to have lots of other content at an affordable price.”