MLS English language TV rights: A history

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

If Major League Soccer was a person it wouldn't be old enough to drink, but the young league is already on its fourth major television package. The history of these deals can be broken down into the time before the 2007 MLS season and the time after it. Before 2007, MLS and ESPN were essentially in a joint venture with a split of the advertising revenue the only payment received by MLS. 2007 was the first year MLS was able to command rights fees.

Before the league even had teams, MLS and ESPN were partners. With the league trying to get organized concurrent with the United States hosting the World Cup, ESPN entered into an agreement with what was going to be a 12 team league to show 35 games and the that point unnamed championship game.

There were some rights fees involved, to help the league put together some capital, but most of MLS' money came from sharing advertising revenues. MLS also paid for the production costs of these ESPN matches, so essentially ESPN got free content and half of the resulting advertising. For MLS, the televised matches were advertisement for the league.

The league eventually got all 12 markets in by 1998, but was hurting for revenue. When Don Garber came on board in 1999, everything began to change. Two years later MLS would form what would become known as Soccer United Marketing to buy the World Cup rights from German media company Kirch.

The agreement with ESPN remained essentially the same: ESPN gave MLS time-slots to air its games and the World Cup and would split the advertising. A year after that deal was stuck, as Landon Donovan was making his World Cup debut in 2002, MLS contracted Miami and Tampa Bay (San Jose was also on table for contraction).

2005 is when everything began to change. That was the year ABC/ESPN paid $100 million for the World Cup rights SUM previously held. SUM did not bid against ESPN for the rights, and actually helped ESPN in their negotiations. This was done in good faith as MLS was hoping to finally negotiate a deal which had ESPN giving MLS rights fees. That was also the year MLS pushed back to twelve teams, adding a second Los Angeles franchise and Real Salt Lake.

That deal finally took affect in the 2007 season. San Jose had given up and moved to Houston the year before, but MLS added a thirteenth team in Toronto in 2007. This new 13 team league received $64 million over seven years from ESPN for their primary English package, $11 million from Fox Sports for a secondary package while Fox would put on their rebranded Fox Sports International network (became Fox Soccer, is now FXX showing comedies). There was a third package carved out for AXS TV, formerly HD Net, which wasn't worth very much.

MLS continued to expand, and at its current size was able to triple the value of the secondary contract bringing NBC Sports on board. The deal that will take affect in 2015 will pay out per year, what the English language contracts used to contribute combined over the life of the contract.

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