If you’re traveling the world looking for top-quality soccer on television, you’ll have an easier time finding the New York Red Bulls than Real Madrid.
That’s because Major League Soccer, which is just weeks into its 20th season, has been on a media rights tear. In the past 12 months, it’s signed deals that will see its matches broadcast in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and it has deals in the works in a number of Asian markets as well.
“It's pretty much going to be seen in 80 percent of the markets, if not more in year one, and it's going to get better and better,” said Ioris Francini, the president of live events and media at IMG, which took over Major League Soccer’s foreign media rights last year.
Even though it’s still battling for recognition here in its home country, Major League Soccer has found success selling itself abroad. While it’s not in the same galaxy as the English Premier League, it is still broadcast in nearly as many countries as the top-flight German league, the Bundesliga, and in more countries than La Liga, the Spanish league that is home to internationally renowned clubs like FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. “I would say it’s a top-10 league,” said Josh Farber, an account director who handles soccer affairs at Omnicom-owned media agency Optimum Sports.
Winning the Off-Season
Perhaps the biggest advantage the MLS has in foreign markets is a lack of competition. “The calendar that we operate on, going from March through December, doesn't line up with 95 percent of the soccer leagues,” said Seth Bacon, vice president of marketing at MLS.
Top European leagues like the EPL, Italy’s Serie A and the Bundesliga wrap up play in the spring, and while many of those leagues’ top teams go on lucrative pre-season tours and play in the odd overseas summer tournament, channels like Sky Sports, which signed a deal with the MLS that will see it air two MLS games per week, are starved for live matches over the summertime. During those months, Sky Sports 1’s audience falls well below the audience share it averages for most of the English Premier League season, according to data from Britain’s Broadcasters Audience Research Board.
“Broadcasters appreciate the drought cover,” Francini said. “Especially paid television broadcasters.”
Enduring Interest In Stars
In 2007, MLS changed its salary cap rules so that each team could sign two “designated players,” or expensive free agents that wouldn’t count against the team’s cap, which at the time was barely more than $2 million. That enabled the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign British soccer icon David Beckham to an incentive-laden deal that paid him more than $6 million per season, and a number of older top-flight players have followed, searching for one last big contract.
While these star imports arrive in North America with their best playing days behind them -- Arsene Wenger, who manages the premier English club Arsenal, recently described MLS as a good place for players to play out the string – they still carry enough star power to drive tune-ins in foreign markets. “In territories where there is absolutely no interest in MLS - picture a central Asian territory where the time zone is difficult – we use players as awareness drivers,” Francini said.
Those same stars are valuable pitchmen in their home territories as well. Francini said that Kaka, a Brazilian Ballon D'Or winner who is still popular enough to attract crowds of fans at World Cup events despite not making Brazil’s final team roster, will be among the players used to attract interest in his home country.
A Healthy Curiosity
Though it’s not yet regarded as a world power in international soccer –FIFA currently has the U.S. ranked 27th – the United States national team is beginning to make strides. It has qualified for seven consecutive World Cups, and last year, the team beat long odds by getting out of what many called the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup, a group that included Portugal, Germany and Ghana. Last night the U.S. team casually dispatched Mexico, extending an unbeaten streak against its onetime nemesis that dates back to 2011.
“The U.S. did better than England in this past World Cup,” Farber said. “I would say there’s a curiosity about why the U.S. is doing so well.” Being able to watch players like Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, Americans who played in the EPL before returning to the United States, makes that comparison easier.
Long Way To Go
If the MLS is going to further entrench itself in foreign markets, it is going to take a long time. It is competing with leagues that have dozens of years of history and equity to build on, and it won’t even be able to count on the estimated 6 million Americans living abroad as proselytizers either: According to Francini, most U.S. expats watch football, basketball and ice hockey, not soccer.
But it is still a live sports broadcast, one of the most valuable kinds of properties one can sell on television. And even with all the deals that have been signed, there is nowhere to go but up.
“We're starting from a pretty low base,” Francini said.