MLS is Back: Agreeing TV deals central to tournament success

Per the Athletic, ESPN and Fox are at loggerheads regarding a deal for the upcoming MLS is Back Tournament. Given the tournament’s main aim is to raise funds by putting matches on TV, agreeing a deal is vital.

Major League Soccer has come up with a plan for its return. Whether it is a good one or not is a very different debate. And while the league will protest that it is otherwise, the sole purpose of its invention and execution is money. Nothing else. But they have a plan nonetheless. Now, they just have to solve the many logistical issues that come with the plan.

One of the primary issues that the league is set to encounter is television. And this, which we will get to, is a critical issue for this tournament in particular given the nature and reason of its existence.

As Sam Stejskal reports in the Athletic this week, ESPN and Fox Sports are struggling to come to an agreement on how the television rights and the cost of those rights should be arranged throughout a tournament that does not align with the normal schedule of the league.

Per the report, ESPN, who is owned by Disney, the same company which owns Disney World and the Wide World of Sports, which is where the games are being hosted, will broadcast a large portion of the 54 total matches. However, Fox and Univision also have a deal with MLS and would like to broadcast matches too. These would be produced and developed by ESPN, before then being rebroadcast through Fox and Univision channels with their own pundits and presenters.

ESPN will spend around $125,000 per game on production costs for tournament matches. Fox is willing to spend only $75,000, which is roughly what their broadcasting costs are for a normal regular-season game. There is a major disparity between the two and the companies are struggling to come to an agreement.

MLS is reportedly playing powerbroker and attempting to ease through a deal. And for good reason. The league is desperate to get all 54 matches on television, one way or another. It also does not want to alienate Fox and Univision given that they will play a part in the looming long-term TV deal that Don Garber will look to secure in 2023.

In fact, it runs deeper than that. The only reason this tournament is happening at all is money, and the best way for the league to recoup as much revenue as possible, revenue that fell by $1 billion according to Garber, is to somehow get matches on television and make the TV companies pay for the rights. Like every professional sports league in the world, TV revenue is the dominating revenue stream.

As such, if MLS cannot somehow get ESPN and Fox to agree on a fair price that spreads the games across both networks, the entire aim of a tournament that undermines sporting integrity, involves an unfair group stage, a rigged draw, and a ‘luxurious prison’ for the players, will not be satisfied.

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There are plenty of problems that MLS have attempted to sweep under the carpet simply to get matches on television and recoup revenue. If they now cannot get the games on television for the right price and with all parties happy, what was this all for?

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