As Major League Soccer (MLS) heads into the 2019 season, the league is experimenting with new partners in the hopes that it will reach fragmented audiences with new, exclusive material on the devices they are using to consume content. It’s a move that could shape the way the league approaches its distribution rights in three years, as it explores new ways and platforms to show live games.
“We are wholly unafraid to take risks and take advantage of the interest and growth we’re seeing and partner with platforms that are well-established or ones trying to grow themselves,” said Seth Bacon, svp of media, MLS.
“These new deals we’re doing allow us to understand how fans engage and react with content when it’s distributed in different ways,” said Bacon. “When we think about what’s next for our rights in 2022, we’re thinking about where we can drive the most amount of value for the league, the club, our fans and our sponsors.”
It’s no secret that streaming services and digital platforms are eager to break into the live sports space. While top-tier leagues like the NFL are likely to remain on linear homes during the next round of rights bidding, smaller leagues like the MLS could benefit from striking deals with streaming outlets.
This year, there are six MLS clubs with exclusive streaming partnerships outside of deals with regional sports networks. Most recently, FloSports and D.C. United signed a multiyear deal to stream live games as well as on-demand coverage to air in Spanish and English exclusively on FloFC.com.
YouTube TV has partnered with three MLS teams—Los Angeles FC, Seattle and Orlando—while ESPN+ airs Chicago games and KSL broadcasts Real Salt Lake matches.
These digital platforms, Bacon said, have the potential to offer viewers deeper coverage and content that they might not otherwise get with a traditional broadcast partner. On FloSports, that could mean anything from interviews with the players to a documentary or comedy sketch.
“You don’t necessarily have to be a hard-core fan of that sport to have an emotional reaction to the sport,” said Mike Levy, vp of global rights acquisition, FloSports. “There are hundreds of stories being left untold that are just as good and compelling as any other mainstream sport.”
ESPN+ similarly hopes to offer viewers a wide range of content across sports to keep audiences interested, including with its soccer content.
“Fans come in for one thing and stay for the range of excitement and interest that we offer,” said Russell Wolff, executive vp and GM for ESPN+.
The league has already had some success on non-linear platforms. Its MLS’ superdraft in January 2018 was livestreamed on Twitter and “kicked ass” with more than a million views, said TJ Adeshola, head of U.S. sports partnerships at Twitter.
The MLS hopes to use its partnerships with platforms like Twitter and YouTube to leverage younger audiences. It has worked to grow its social media presence, and saw a 990 percent increase since 2013 on those platforms.
The league has also been pushing a plethora of new content. Last year, MLS Digital created 20,000 unique pieces of video content and garnered 786 million video views.
That represented a 65 percent increase in the number of views MLS original content attracted the year prior and its YouTube subscribers grew by 50 percent.
Meawhile, the MLS has also gotten more clever with the advertising it takes on from these platforms. LAFC players have jerseys sponsored by YouTube TV, for example.
“It’s one of the most important partnerships we have with a sponsor,” said Tom Penn, president and owner of LAFC, in addition to the exclusive content that’s available on the platform.
While MLS was quick to compliment traditional broadcasters, who Bacon called “terrific partners delivering us value beyond what we could hope for,” the league is clearly eager to continue its expansion into new platforms.
“We’re at the forefront of new distribution models,” said Bacon, “and that’s very appealing to premium partners who want to deliver their message and ensure their content is being presented in as many ways as possible.”