Monday, June 6, 2022

Why is MLS Still Waiting?

Major League Soccer started negotiating their next TV deal with two seasons left on their current 8-year deal with Disney, FOX, and Univision. The prevailing theory at the time was that they needed to do that because of the amount of deals networks were going to be negotiating in 2021, which included the Premier League, a direct competitor.

So why is MLS still waiting to sign a new deal nearly 18 months later?


Just a few months before MLS started negotiations with Spanish-language networks they announced a major modification to the Leagues Cup, a Liga MX vs. MLS competition that had been stuffed into the middle the MLS schedule. They announced that the tournament would, in 2023, be a month-long "March Madness" style event that would take center stage while MLS puts its already-started regular season on ice (Liga MX would be on summer break anyway).

The announcement obviously raises a lot of questions. Doesn't this new thing devalue the regular season? What about international competitions during the summer that pauses the MLS season already like the Gold Cup and World Cup? Will some teams sit for two months? Has MLS even gotten all the Liga MX teams to agree to play? What about their TV deals because they are all negotiated on a club-by-club basis? Where is the evidence that this tournament will do well on TV? Matches between the two leagues via the CCL and existing LC rarely touch even 400k combined Eng and Span-lang.

From an organizational perspective, this new tournament falls apart after a few simple questions.


MLS and US Soccer, who had been married for a couple decades, announced they were separating in the months they started negotiating with networks. MLS (and its rights company SUM) used its bond with US Soccer to get their last TV deal of $90m per year by tethering themselves together. Nobody south of the SUM executive teams knows what the TV dollar split was because everything there is a black box. Money comes in from things like the US Women, TV, Mexican National Team, Gold Cup, etc and then it gets spit out after it runs through SUM's investors (which are MLS operators/investors).

The divorce between these two organizations wasn't one between two kidless young lovers. The effects of it are ongoing and will continue for years. Exactly one year after the split, US Soccer announced equal pay. Just last week, Will Wilson, a longtime MLS employee and CEO / Secretary General of US Soccer just "quit" after being elevated in 2020. And US Soccer, operating outside the watchful eye of SUM and MLS, just secured its own TV deal for the first time.

With the World Cup coming to the United States in 2026, the ramifications of this split are going to get worse.


MLS Next. The new developmental league was somewhat surprisingly announced as TV negotiations started -- and surprise, the league decided it was going to be part of the TV package.

Imagine starting your dinner and the chef coming out to take your plate back to the kitchen to add something you didn't ask for.


The MLS TV product package wasn't very good to start with. 

Included are all 450-something MLS games that the league wants the winning bidder to produce. The new "Leagues Cup," that stalls the plane at thirty thousand feet. And "MLS Next." A brand new minor league of sorts that adds zero value (from a package perspective).

After coming off improved ratings (and production) from their previous deal with NBC, TV ratings for the league have been largely flat since their last deal started in 2014. The promised "regular windows" slipped by the wayside. Bumper programming got zero interest. 

The only thing the 2014 World Cup did for MLS was set the bar high for the rest of the deal. With a missed 2018 WC we got a glimpse of a soccer world without the USMNT and we decided that the soccer world just kept of moving on without MLS trying to carve out a spot.

After celebrating 25 years recently it has dawned on people that MLS is not going to be the "next big thing" and having young audiences will not make it so. We've also learned that it is not to be confused with the rise of European soccer popularity in the US. In fact, the age of the league and its 64-year-old commissioner, are starting to look tired. Network decision-makers and executives who remember attending the Tibetan Freedom Festival at RFK around the same time DC United was winning the 2nd MLS Cup back in the stone age.

MLS, by design, is a completely separate competition that operates in its own climate bubble. The popular winds that are pushing the Premier League to the number one league in the US do not make their way to MLS.


Go back and redo the product offering.

1. Build a dozen teams that can produce MLS games in-house. They'll have to be lean and nimble to cover every game each weekend, but this builds something they can sell in the future. It'll cost money and you'll need people working 24/7, but can be done. If individual teams want to have their own local coverage, great. Do that too. Just don't staddle a network with doing it.

2. Sell the Leagues Cup separately and do not pause the MLS season for it. If it becomes a thing? Great. But nobody sees it as a thing right now. It's a vision that looks neat to teens creating it on FIFA during a Mountain Dew and Doritos fueled evening, but the reality of it is much different.

3. MLS Next doesn't need to be part of this package. It doesn't add TV value.


A. Loosen Professional League Standards.

1. Begin work on linking up RIGHT NOW with and through the USL and transform them into "league 1,2,3..." with anything 2 and below being regional. The goal should be to promote the first teams up and down by the start of the 2025 season to kick off WC 2026 promotions.

At the same time, MLS would convert into a "premier league" style first division. To do that MLS will have to make SUM investors whole - which they can do because the money coming in will be far greater than the payout. Also, we might be surprised to find that there are a number of investors that would like to cash out just as there are with any public company. Nobody lives forever.

Over the next couple of years, the hooks will be created and this linked league system will work similarly to the PL in that it will spark interest in just about every market in the United States because there will be clubs nearly everywhere. The top league, which for a long time will be full of current MLS investors will increase in value and will sell TV, sponsorship, kit rights in a similar way. 

Most importantly, these changes will fundamentally alter the landscape in regard to inclusion in a way that this country is hungry for. A team from anywhere could rise. We could see the Cosmos return. Bethlehem Steel. We could see a team from the banks of the raw Kanawha. We could see one of these local youth organizations from the burbs field a pro team. It's endless.

2. Switch to Fall-Winter / Spring-Summer schedule. It'll fill the sails with Top 5 winds, yes (transfers, finishing in nice weather), but also keep MLS from having to stop for summer international events (or events throughout the year). 

During the winter break, we can see the US Open Cup play early rounds in warm cities that are regionally convenient for any fans that want to travel. Play the later rounds during the Spring. Give the final its own weekend.

The breaks will also give the US and Mexico room to play games without disruption.


Starting this ahead of the World Cup in 2026 will show the world that soccer in the United States is for everyone and not just a handful of wealthy investors. Excitement and victories will be won and lost up and down the ladder every season. It'll give hope to anyone and everyone wanting to be involved.

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