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What’s Next For MLS if FOX Bows Out?

We’re roughly a month or so into the 2022 Major League Soccer season, the final in an eight-year television deal between the MLS, its English-language television partners, ESPN and FOX Sports and Spanish-language television partner Univision/TUDN.

If recent rumblings are any indication, FOX Sports, which has devoted more and more of its soccer resources and production efforts toward cup competitions, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar chiefly among them, will be out as one of MLS’ English-language television partners following this year’s MLS Cup Final.

So, this begs a million-dollar question:

What could be next for Major League Soccer on American television as far as English-language broadcasts are considered if and when FOX Sports ends its run?

How We Got Here

When MLS began its run on FOX Sports and FOX Sports 1 late in the winter of 2015, it did so with FOX inheriting the partial television rights to the league from NBC Sports/NBCSN, which departed as MLS television rightsholder in the fall of 2014. This came about 15 months after NBCUniversal acquired exclusive United States television rights to the English Premier League, effective with its 2013-14 season.

NBC announced the move to end the three-year run of MLS on NBC in January of 2014, with FOX Sports being announced as one of the new television rightsholders in a seven-year deal between FOX, ESPN, and Univision, covering the 2015 through 2022 MLS seasons.

This television deal also saw ESPN alternate as the TV rightsholder for the MLS Cup Final with FOX Sports, FOX airing the match on its broadcast television network in even-numbered years throughout the life of its term, ESPN airing MLS Cup in odd-numbered years.

Recent ESPN MLS Cups have seen the match air on its broadcast counterpart ABC, most recently with New York City FC’s penalty kick triumph over Portland Timbers in December of 2021.

PORTLAND, OREGON – DECEMBER 11: Members of New York City celebrate after defeating the Portland Timbers to win the MLS Cup at Providence Park on December 11, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Ratings Start Off Well, Then Slide As Years Progress

MLS began its run on FOX Sports in March of 2015, with the first season of telecasts (most of which aired on FS1) averaging 196,545 viewers per match, the high mark of the season coming on June 14th, 2015 when Orlando City SC bested DC United 1-0 at what’s now known as Camping World Stadium, a telecast viewed by an estimated 378,000 people that Sunday night.

The following is a year-to-year average of MLS on FOX telecast ratings between the 2015 and 2021 MLS seasons, where applicable.

Note: Figures presented here only reflect those of regular season matches aired on FOX Sports.

MLS on FOX Ratings Year-To-Year, 2015 to 2021

  • 2015 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 196.545 viewers per match.
  • 2016 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 224,000 viewers per match. FOX began airing MLS matches on its over-the-air network during the 2016 MLS season.
  • 2017 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 236,000 viewers per match.
  • 2018 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 296,000 viewers per match.
  • 2019 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: Per match figures unavailable.
  • 2020 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 202,000 viewers per match, season disrupted following Matchday Two due to COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 2021 MLS on FOX Telecast Average: 210,000 viewers per match.

COVID-19 Hits in 2020 MLS Season, Causing Remote Productions of MLS on FOX After Resumption of Play

As previously stated, the 2020 MLS season was suspended, much like all other professional sports that were on going at the time. After the second week of play as a combative measure against COVID-19, resuming in July of 2020 with the MLS is Back Tournament held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

No Sideline Reporters on a Regular Basis, Then No Sideline Reporters Period

While FOX Sports provided the action on some matchdays, the network did so remotely and without the benefit of sideline reporters for much of the balance of the season.

Only when Columbus Crew SC clinched a spot in MLS Cup 2020 did FOX utilize its then-lead sideline reporter, Katie Witham, on the telecast, as she is based in Columbus and FOX would not have had to burden itself with extra travel expenses.

This remote broadcast strategy continued through much of the 2021 MLS season, with FOX only sending its top announce crew of John Strong and Stu Holden to tentpole events, such as last summer’s MLS All-Star Game, with sideline reporters no longer being used on a weekly basis.

Katie Witham would not return at all during the 2021 MLS season and Rodolfo Landeros of FOX Deportes took her place on three MLS telecasts that were produced from the match grounds, the only such telecasts to use a sideline reporter that year.

Prior to the 2022 MLS season, FOX Sports revealed that it would be discontinuing the use of sideline reporters on all of its MLS telecasts in favor of a continuation of a remote production strategy, except in cases of a tentpole event, such as Charlotte FC’s inaugural home match back in early March.

Again, this begs the question of where does MLS on television go from here.

CHARLOTTE, NC – MARCH 5: Retired NFL player Steve Smith speaks to the fans during a game between Los Angeles Galaxy and Charlotte FC at Bank of America Stadium on March 5, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

New MLS Television Deal Still Not Settled As of Yet, CBS Apparently Out of Contention

With the overall low ratings of the MLS on FOX telecasts in recent years, despite a four percent increase year-to-year between 2020 and 2021, the prevailing wisdom seems to suggest that the 2022 MLS season will be FOX Sports’ last covering Major League Soccer for the foreseeable future.

In recent months, the topic of the 2023-future MLS television deal has been ripe for discussion, with the announcement of this deal having been delayed several times.

The latest targeted date for the announcement of the new television deal was at the end of March, a date that wound up not being met.

CBS Sports was thought to have been a contender for the MLS TV rights, but The Athletic recently reported that CBS has minimal interest in securing partial MLS rights when the new contract begins next season.

Enter Turner Sports?

One dark horse candidate in these rights negotiations looks to be Turner Sports, which most recently aired UEFA Champions League matches on TNT in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons before the latter season was disrupted by a certain virus.

During the COVID-19 hiatus, Turner Sports passed on the remainder of its Champions League deal, which was to run through the 2021 final.

According to an article by World Soccer Talk’s Kartik Krishnaiyer, “WarnerMedia’s bid for Premier League rights fell just short. Yet, it was not for a lack of financial reasons. With the monetary means still available, WarnerMedia can direct these to other potential rights. Ergo, Major League Soccer.”

Given that Turner Sports acquired the rights to air US Soccer matches across TNT and TBS on cable television and streaming on HBOMax starting next year and continuing through 2031, it stands to reason that they’d also be in play for MLS broadcasts.

The WarnerMedia merger with Discovery Communications officially closed on April 8th, with the company being known as Warner Bros. Discovery.

With the merger now done and dusted, could this lead to renewed talks between Warner Bros. Discovery and MLS?

Only time will tell, but an MLS package of games on Sunday afternoons would be good programming for TBS, whose MLB package moves to Tuesday nights from Sunday afternoons this season.

Final Thoughts

The new MLS TV deal will be announced in the near future, and whether or not it’ll be one with the involvement of FOX Sports remains to be seen.

Stay tuned to Overtime Heroics, as we’ll be keeping tabs on this story.

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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