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COMMENT

14/3/2014

Clinton J. Warren

Major League Soccer (MLS) is nearing the end of its television broadcast partner agreements with ESPN and NBCSN in the United States. At present, the league is moving into a period of attempted growth with league commissioner, Don Garber, stating MLS will expand to 24 clubs by 2020.

The league has already accepted entry from New York City FC, Orlando City SC, and a Miami franchise led by, former player turned owner, David Beckham. These clubs will begin play in 2015 through 2017. This will move the league to 22 clubs with rumours of potential future franchises joining the league in markets such as Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Antonio.

Garber has been clear, the league needs to continue to grow spectatorship and significantly grow television viewership to increase the revenue streams coming from the league’s television broadcast partners. This will allow the league to increase on-field quality of play by paying players at rates more equivalent to other domestic leagues across the world. This is the public strategy advocated by the league to help it achieve its ultimate goal of becoming a top-class league globally.

However, MLS faces numerous challenges as it works to grow broadcast revenue streams. A report in Sports Business Journal indicates, while attendance figures are generally strong for the league, television ratings are in a state of decline. Specifically, MLS saw a 29% decrease from 2012 to 2013 on matches broadcast on ESPN/ESPN2 and an 8% decrease on NBCSN broadcasts. In an era in which television revenues have become king, this is a very alarming trend. The relative popularity of MLS in North America has made securing a lucrative broadcast partnership difficult and declining viewership will only complicate matters. The league has been able to grow English and Spanish language television partnerships revenues through its 18 year history, but not at the rate of other major professional leagues.

The challenges MLS faces domestically, coupled with the niche market the league serves may lead to a unique opportunity for the league. Internet delivered television content has emerged as a legitimate threat to traditional broadcast companies. Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and other Wi-Fi enable broadcast devices allow viewers to purchase only the television programming they desire thus shifting the power of choice dramatically in favor of the consumer. This technology has yet to truly explode in popularity as a result of the relatively limited number of web applications and programming available across each respective platform.

Could internet application delivered programming be a viable alternative for MLS? The majority of sport broadcast applications require an existing subscription with a traditional television service provider.  For example, NBCSN subscribers are able to access an application called NBC Live Extra anywhere they are able to connect to the internet to watch Barclay’s Premier League (BPL) matches at no additional fee. This has been a tremendously successful development for the BPL as it continues to expand its footprint in the United States. It can be argued that the advertising opportunities, while not as voluminous, are greater via this type of content delivery. This comes as a result of the comparative ease for advertisers in targeting and tracking online viewer engagement with promotional messages.

It seems clear; MLS should work to develop a partnership that allows for at least a portion of its matches to be available via internet application delivery. Like other North American leagues, MLS does have its own content delivery application, MLS Live. MLS Live is a subscription-based application that will cost users approximately $70 for the 2014 season. The advantage of the BPL agreement with NBCSN and the NBC Live Extra application is the opportunity for fans to watch the club they support while the traditional NBCSN television broadcast only features the top matches of the week at no additional cost. Further, there are significant cross-platform promotional opportunities. While MLS does not compare to the level of popularity of the BPL, a traditional broadcast partnership for MLS is limiting to existing fans and consumers of the league. This type of failure to integrate content across platforms would be problematic going forward. While MLS may be able to incrementally grow revenues through a new partnership with a traditional broadcast company, failure to include an internet application that is available to existing cable subscribers could further stunt viewership growth. Particularly since it is likely American soccer viewers are now familiar with this format. NBCSN has routinely seen average match viewership for BPL games exceed 700,000 and, it appears that MLS can benefit from the cross promotion with BPL broadcasts. MLS averaged 112,000 viewers per match broadcast on NBCSN prior to the start of the BPL season. MLS broadcasts then experienced a 20,000 viewer per match increase when the BPL began play for the 2013-2014 season.

Could the challenges MLS is facing as a result of lack of viewership be mitigated by content delivered primarily via the internet? Could MLS go further than the BPL has in terms of moving its content to a hybrid platform that models NBCSN’s broadcasts of the BPL? Top BPL franchises such as Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal all have devoted followings in America. This has been made possible through match broadcasts and traveling tours over the past decade and has served as a platform for strong television viewership. The emergence of Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and applications such as Hulu, have led to a new market and strategy in attempting to negotiate broadcast rights fees. MLS would be wise to partner with a broadcast company willing to produce and deliver regional match broadcasts online while featuring weekly signature matchups on a popular, traditional cable network like NBCSN or ESPN. This will allow MLS to grow local viewership via internet delivered programming and gain larger national level support to regain its past viewership figures which exceeded 300,000 on average. MLS is in a unique position as it progresses through a period of rapid change, and it should consider all options even if they carry risk and are non-traditional by comparison.

Clinton J. Warren, Ph.D.
University of Iowa

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