It looks like MLS is set to try something unconventional in its next TV deal. As per Ian Thomas of Sports Business Journal, the league has told its clubs to not sign local TV deals past 2022, when its national deals expire. That’s in the hope of possibly packaging those local rights with national rights in some fashion, which would be relatively unprecedented for a U.S. league at the level of MLS. And that move may not work out well for them at all.
Here’s more from Thomas’ piece:
MLS has instructed all 24 of its current clubs as well as its future expansion teams in Miami, Nashville and Austin to not have any local broadcast agreements that go beyond 2022. That is the year that the league’s national and international broadcast deals will expire, thus allowing MLS to potentially package any combination of those rights to future broadcast partners.
…“It’s no secret that the local rights have not garnered the kind of net revenue that we ultimately seek, and we need to continue to drive revenue to be one of those top leagues in the world,” said Adrian Hanauer, the owner of the Seattle Sounders. “I’m super bullish on what we’re envisioning, and I think we’re positing the league and the teams for the best possible outcome.”
Daniel Cohen, Octagon’s senior vice president of media rights consulting, said this approach will give MLS the most opportunity to be creative, potentially attracting a large, overarching digital buyer, or to go to the market with some sort of split between national and local or digital and linear packages.
“It’s very smart for MLS to say, ‘How do we make sure that when we’re preparing for war in 2022, that we have all of our arsenal and weapons at bay,’” he said. “No other league can really be in that position.”
While there is some logic to Cohen’s take that this approach gives the league the most flexibility possible in negotiating rights deals, there are plenty of perils here. For one, there’s the question of where all that inventory will wind up. If they do manage to sell the entire national and local package to one buyer, it’s highly unlikely that would work on linear television, so it would need to be a buyer that has its own giant streaming platform to put all the games they don’t want to air on linear TV. At the moment, that looks like only ESPN (with ESPN+) and Turner (with B/R Live).
ESPN already has taken over out-of-market streaming service MLS Live for ESPN+, which probably makes more sense for them, and Turner hasn’t yet signed a lot of big-money properties for B/R Live. It’s possible that they could bundle their local packages and sell them to someone else (maybe a streaming-focused company), but if not geoblocked, that would interfere with their out-of-market streaming plans. None of this seems likely to bring in all that much revenue, especially considering what some of these teams were making on their own.