NEW YORK (AP) — ESPN and Fox executives see devoted fans at Major League Soccer matches and figure burgeoning national television viewership is soon to follow.
It hasn’t happened yet despite Americans’ surging interest in international soccer and MLS’s success in building stadiums designed for the sport. The networks are betting that will change in the next eight years, agreeing to pay more in a new long-term contract.
“We’ve been a little puzzled. Clearly when we did the last deal we would’ve expected to see a higher growth curve,” ESPN President John Skipper said. “We’re kind of doubling down. We still think it’s going to happen.”
And they’re confident they can help make that happen with a major promotional push.
“We know what we can do with this,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said, “and we know that this is a deal for the future, not just right now.”
The agreements announced Monday with MLS and U.S. Soccer run through 2022. Univision Deportes also extended its contract for Spanish-language rights.
One of MLS’s goals was to lock in the same day for a game of the week throughout the entire season for the first time. Univision will air a match every Friday night. And a doubleheader will take place every Sunday — one game on ESPN at 5 p.m. Eastern time, then the nightcap on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m.
“We think that will help drive ratings,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
It’s the first time ESPN has agreed to be part of a regular doubleheader across two networks, Skipper said. He’s noticed that his company and its competitors are cooperating with each other more lately on leagues they both televise, realizing that a healthy sport benefits everyone.
The contract also includes the men’s and women’s national team games for which U.S. Soccer holds the rights, including exhibitions and home World Cup qualifiers. ESPN and FS1 will split about 10 men’s team matches each year.
ESPN has broadcast the MLS since its inception in 1996; Fox Soccer aired games until NBC took over that package in 2011. Now it’s going back to a Fox channel, with FS1 available in more than twice as many homes as Fox Soccer was.
NBC, in the final season of a three-year deal mostly for NBCSN, has since added the English Premier League.
Viewership for MLS matches slid in 2013. Regular-season games on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 220,000 viewers, down from 311,000 in 2012. Matches on NBCSN, which had 122,000 viewers in 2012, averaged 100,000 in 2013 before Premier League started but bumped up to 132,000 after that.
The rising popularity of international soccer has already translated into increased interest in the U.S. team. The 11 World Cup qualifying matches on ESPN’s networks before the 2010 tournament averaged 758,000 viewers. That soared to 1.26 million for the nine games in the most recent cycle.
ESPN and Fox are both plenty motivated to fill their airwaves with soccer. Fox won the rights to the 2018 and ’22 World Cups and wants to maintain a presence in the sport between tournaments to go along with its Champions League deal. Shanks also believes a healthy MLS strengthens the U.S. team — and a successful American squad makes for higher World Cup ratings.
ESPN, which owns the 2016 European Championship rights, hopes to keep a foothold in soccer after losing the World Cup to Fox.
ESPN’s networks — mostly ESPN2 — and FS1 will each air at least 34 games a season under the deal. They’ll alternate broadcasting the MLS Cup. Out-of-market matches will be streamed on ESPN3.com for the first time.
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