As Andrei Markovitz’s classic article “The Other “American Exceptionalism” – Why Is There No Soccer in the United States?” makes clear, individuals have long been debating the reasons for the U.S.’s lack of interest in soccer. One of the statements made in Markovitz’ 1988 article struck me, as he wrote that “soccer’s marginal existence as a major spectator sport in contemporary America has probably a lot more to do with its inability to land a long-term television contract with one of the major networks, than with it being ‘crowded out’ by baseball ‘from below’ and football ‘from above'” (Markovitz, 1988:145). Given that this article was written at a time when Major League Soccer (MLS) didn’t exist and that now U.S. television networks broadcast soccer from both the MLS and European leagues, there are two different lenses through which to analyze the influence of U.S. television contracts on the popularity of soccer in the U.S. The first of which examines the influence of the MLS and U.S. television contracts, and the second examines the influence of European leagues and U.S. television contracts. This blog post will focus on the history of MLS U.S. television contracts and their influence on American interest in soccer.
To provide a brief summary of MLS on U.S. television, the first major contract was signed in 1994 with ESPN. The contract was signed roughly two years before the first MLS match was played in April 1996, and it was set to last for three years, broadcasting 10 games on ESPN, 25 games on ESPN2, and the championship game on ABC. This deal split advertising revenue evenly between the league and the network, with no rights fees provided for the MLS.
Since this initial contract, ESPN has continued to broadcast MLS games up until present day. However, the MLS has signed other contracts here and there with other networks, all in a rather confusing jumble, with contracts lasting different amounts of time. One infographic highlighted the random assortment of TV contracts that the MLS has jumped into over the past 8 years:
(Image from here.)
Two major TV-soccer deals in recent history both involve ESPN: the first was an 8-year deal signed in 2006 between ESPN and MLS, worth $7-8 million annually in rights fees (the first TV contract to include rights fees for the MLS), and the second was another 8-year deal recently signed in May 2014 between ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision Deportes, worth $90 million annually. With this most recent contract, in effect in 2015, MLS will receive five times the amount of money from rights fees than it was receiving in its previous TV contracts. Furthermore, for the first time, MLS will receive more money from their U.S. television contract than the English Premier League receives from its respective U.S. television contract with NBC (worth $85 million annually).
Do these expensive TV contracts with major sports networks indicate that the MLS, and soccer, are rising in popularity in the U.S.? For a deeper look at this, simply examine the TV ratings for the MLS Cup (the MLS championship match and arguably the most important match of the season). In 2013, the ESPN live broadcast of the MLS Cup had an average viewing audience of 505,000 people. This was the smallest audience ever for the MLS Cup on English-language television, 44% smaller than the 2012 MLS Cup and small even when compared to the 1.4 million viewers for the first MLS Cup in 1996. The referenced article makes the sad comparison that an old, syndicated episode of Everybody Loves Raymond also draws in a viewing audience of 505,000 people.
Based on TV ratings, it would appear that expensive TV contracts are not really drawing American interest to soccer. However, it is worth noting that with the new contract in effect in 2015, for the first time, MLS games will be on U.S. television on regularly scheduled days and times. Furthermore, strong brands like Chipotle and Heineken are signing sponsorship deals with the league, possibly indicating greater American interest in MLS and offering a hopeful future for the league. So when the 2015 MLS season begins on March 6, perhaps a new TV contract and new sponsorships will be just what the MLS needs to finally draw serious interest from the American population.
(Feature image from here.)