Major League Soccer Flexes Its (Weak?) TV Muscles

By Noah Davis 

Major League Soccer’s television rights deal with Fox Soccer Channel is up for renegotiation and executives want $20 million per season, an increase of almost seven times the previous deal. If struck, the deal would be a tremendous boon to MLS, which is proving financially viable as it continues to invest in infrastructure and expansion. Sports leagues, anyone will tell you, make their money on television rights.

But will FSC bite? That’s the ($20) million dollar question.

MLS seems to be asking a lot. Their Saturday night broadcasts on FSC drew just 53,000 viewers while ESPN’s audience fell 12.3 percent from the previous season. (Admittedly, ESPN has done a lot to promote the league, although Bill Simmons offered a plan to improve ratings.)

But MLS does have some leverage.The league flirted with Versus, although talks reportedly never got very far. But that’s not to say they couldn’t be renewed. Convincing FSC that there was competition for the television rights would certainly boost the value of the contract.

Moreover, the league is here to stay. MLS – through smart expansion, intelligent decision-making, and strong leadership – has become an increasingly valuable commodity. Audiences will grow, both in stadiums and on television. Perhaps not quickly, but they will get bigger.

So is MLS worth $20 million? Probably not, but the rights are significantly more valuable than $3 million. You have to think both properties would be happy with a compromise somewhere in the middle, especially since MLS’s contracts with ESPN and Univision run through 2014 and will need to be renegotiated in the near future.