Soccer for the masses: New MLS TV deal should help sport reach beyond core audience

i-daee5747f4dab311ca465d55e29a9be6-NBC-Sports-Network-Logo_bla.standard.jpgAmerican sporting public: meet MLS.

It’s one of the truths hard-core soccer fans like us don’t want to face: Major League Soccer is closer to Minor League Soccer for most casual sports fans in this country.

That’s why Los Angeles-based Fox Soccer Channel’s loss will be the sports’ gain when it switches to be the soon to be something other than Verses next year:

AP Sports Writer Rachel Cohen has the details:

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Soccer games will be televised by NBC’s networks starting next season, doubling the number of homes that dozens of games will be available in.

The package currently on Fox Soccer Channel will move mainly to the NBC Sports Network, Versus’ new name beginning Jan. 2. The cable channel will air 38 regular-season games, three playoff games and two U.S. men’s national team matches each year.

NBC will broadcast two regular-season MLS games, two playoff games and two national team appearances under the three-year contract announced Wednesday.

“It shows our sport is ready for prime time,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told The Associated Press.

The deal became possible after Comcast, Versus’ parent company, officially took over NBCUniversal in January. Not only will a handful of games be available to a broader
audience on NBC, but Garber is confident soccer will get invaluable exposure through
advertising during the network’s coverage of other sports, from “Sunday Night Football” to the Stanley Cup playoffs to the Olympics.

“NBC is really famous for promoting their partners, and that’s a big driver in our decision to
do a deal with them,” Garber said.

Hockey, shown on both NBC and Versus since before the Comcast merger, has seen significant ratings growth in recent years.

“What they’ve done for the NHL I think is remarkable,” Garber said.

Garber was quick to note the league was approached by NBC.

“This was not an ask, it was an offer,” he said.

The cable games will go from being available in nearly 40 million households on Fox Soccer to almost 80 million on NBC Sports Network, which is in about two-thirds of American homes with televisions. Five regional Comcast sports networks also already broadcast games for their local MLS teams, adding to the opportunities for cross-promotion.

“Connecting the dots between all of their assets will ensure a broader audience for MLS and U.S. Soccer, and that’s really what this sport needs today,” Garber said. “If you look at the popularity of the World Cup and the almost ubiquity of the sport in America today, it’s a natural step we would evolve from what was a great relationship with Fox Soccer Channel, albeit a niche network, to broader broadcast, cable and digital platforms.”

ESPN will continue to broadcast its package of MLS games. Its strong ratings for last year’s World Cup are among many signs that the sport is becoming more of a force in American television.

“I don’t think the NBC deal is done if they didn’t believe MLS was ready to step further into
the mainstream,” Garber said.

Jon Miller, the president of programming of NBC Sports and Versus, said the networks are
committed to pregame and postgame shows and would like to find one day to serve as a showcase “Game of the Week” date.

He said the network found MLS appealing because it reaches a young, affluent demographic, ratings are growing, and that soccer is the “fastest growing sport in America.” He said the MLS reaches “blue chip” sponsors that can only help grow a sport that has struggled to find its footing in a crowded sports landscape.

“We’re proud to be along and hopefully we can accelerate the ride further,” Miller said.

I’ve seen the deal variously reported as $10 million a year (Sports Business Journal) or $12 million over three years (LA Times). By comparison, FSC supposedly paid $6.25 million this year on a one-year broadcast rights deal.

Still, it’s exposure that is the key here. (Incidentally, these national deals affect little the regional TV agreements the Galaxy and Chivas USA have).

Now, NBC has little soccer broadcast history.

But after the way ESPN, which supposedly does, treated the U.S.-Mexico game – refusing to cut away from an already decided Little League game, for crying out loud, – it’s time for a different approach.

I asked Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena about the deal today at a club media luncheon in Manhattan Beach ahead of next week’s CONCACAF Champions League opener (more on that in Tuesday’s column).

“It’s a major plus,” he said, adding that Anschutz Entertainment Group execs, the parent company of both the Galaxy and NHL Kings, have raved about the benefits Verses has brought to the club.

“This is an important part of the process,” Arena added, “to become identified more at the national level.”

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