mlsIn 2011, the MLS schedule was released in February. Last year the schedule was released in the first week of January.  The 2013 version was released on Tuesday afternoon along with the list of nationally televised games.  As we do we every year, we are a taking a look at the schedule of games and some of the business aspects of the schedule release.

For business junkies, the most interesting part of the release is probably the announcement of nationally telecast games. New MLS partner NBC will televise 41 matches over the season, including three games on over-the-air television (same as last year).  Two of games on the NBC mothership will come at the end of the season and two of the three will feature DC United.  The late season games give the network to leverage its Sunday Night Football juggernaut to promote the matches.

Games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, NBC, NBCSN, Univision and UniMas (formerly Telefutura). In Canada, at least 30 games featuring Canadian clubs will air on TSN/TSN2 in English and RDS/RDS2 in French.  One of the new features this year will be the week 3 “rivalry week” which will feature 8 matches between regional rivals.   According to the league’s press release, “[m]ore than 90 percent of this year’s regular-season games are on weekends or holidays, and none will overlap directly with FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. During the summer months, most games will kick off no earlier than 4 pm local time in an effort to reduce the impact of hot weather.”

Not surprisingly, New York and Los Angeles have the most nationally televised games with Houston and Chicago a close second.  It is also not shocking to see New England and Columbus at the bottom of US based teams on American telecasts.  However, RSL’s limited appearances (3) is something of a surprise.  Rio Tinto usually shows well on television.

The start of the season is less than two months away, with two nationally televised games in English and one in Spanish.  The season concludes on Oct. 27, with five games, followed by playoffs.  MLS Cup 2013 will take place on Dec. 7 or 8.

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Business Snapshot: Television

Last week we took a look at the status of expansion on the eve of the 2012 season.  Today, with the start of the NBC/MLS relationship just days away, we thought it worth taking a quick snapshot of the American soccer broadcast relationships.  In August MLS and NBC  announced a three year television rights agreement that will put Major League Soccer on the Peacock and its affiliated sports channel from 2012-2014.  The three year deal is worth an estimated 10 million dollars per year and replaced the league’s one year $6 million + deal with FSC.  As part of the agreement, NBC and NBC Sports Network will air regular season and playoff matches from MLS and USMNT games.  Promotional efforts have already begun and the network has produced a number of high quality spots to promote the upcoming season of soccer.

MLS has timed the expiration of its newest deal to coincide with the end of the ESPN and Univision deals as well.  Conventional wisdom suggests that this is a calculated risk that will allow the league to maximize it s future tv revenue by negotiating rights deals in the glow of a World Cup year.  However, that approach puts MLS in the unenviable position of entering the negotiations with no security blanket.  If one its primary partners declines to participate in the discussions, the league will lack leverage.

The standard bearer for league television relationships is ESPN, which is a longtime partner of the league.  ESPN still holds the rights to the MLS Cup and All Star Game.  ESPN pays $8.5 million annually for MLS rights, yet that deal is part of a larger SUM/ABC/ESPN package that includes USMNT games and FIFA World Cup. In 2012, ESPN’s package is reduced to 20 games but includes a number of games on ESPN rather than ESPN2.

No discussion of league television rights would be complete without reference to the new $55 million deal with two Time Warner Regional Sports networks to televise Galaxy games.  The new networks (one in Spanish and the other in English) are fighting for content in the crowded LA Sports market and this deal guarantees live programming from March to October. The size of the deal is staggering.  NBC recently paid $30 million for 3 years of Major League Soccer on a national level and now Time Warner is offering $5.5 million per year for a team that never topped 16k viewers over the last year.

The last note applies to future World Cup broadcasts.  FOX outbid NBC and ESPN to claim the rights for approximately $450 million dollars.  The Spanish language rights were won by Telemundo for an estimated $600 million.  The combined $1 billion bids shatters FIFA records and confirms both stations as primary player in the soccer broadcast arena.  The package includes rights to the Womens’ World Cup events in intervening years and rights to various youth World Cups.  In 2005, ESPN paid $100 million for the English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 games. Univision paid $325 million for the Spanish-language rights.  US rights are the most expensive in the world.