Major League Soccer and NBC Sports announced a new three-year agreement to televise 45 league matches and 4 United States national team games on the main network and on the NBC Sports Network, which will be the new name of the current cable station Versus. The deal will end the league’s relationship with Fox Soccer, which recently signed a one-year deal to carry matches in 2011.
In each year of the deal, the NBC network will broadcast two regular-season M.L.S. games, two playoff games and two national team games (Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of M.L.S., owns the rights to the United States national team). The NBC Sports Network will televise 38 regular-season games, 3 playoff games and 2 national team matches. The agreement also gives NBC digital rights across all platforms. NBC was recently acquired by Comcast.
“Everyone at the NBC Sports Group is thrilled to begin this partnership with Major League Soccer,” Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, said in a statement released by the league. “M.L.S. is a perfect fit for our new group, and we are uniquely positioned to help grow soccer in the United States with extensive coverage on NBC Sports Network, significant programming on the broadcast network and our growing digital platforms. Additionally, this agreement complements the partnerships five of our regional sports networks have with their local M.L.S. teams.”
All three M.L.S. television deals, which includes ESPN and Univision in addition to NBC, will expire at the end of 2014.
“Clearly there’s a buzz about the sport and there’s been great momentum over the last year.” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Interest in soccer programming has grown recently. We wanted to capitalize on momentum for the sport. More importantly, we wanted to ensure that we finalized plans for 2012 with enough time to manage programming and the league schedule to avoid the challenges we had this year.
“This is a real step forward for M.L.S. and U.S. soccer. This is a world renown broadcaster known for production values and promotional expertise. That they are getting into soccer is a great statement about where the sport is today.”
Garber added: “The key thing for us relates to 2014, this three-year deal allows us to align all our TV relationships to end concurrently at end of ‘14 season and provides us with a potential opportunity to have more exclusive relationship with a broadcaster. Way to early what plans will be three years from now.”
Asked if those plans might include an M.L.S. network, modeled after the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball channels, Garber would only say “it’s to early to comment.”
Before the start of the 2011 season, M.L.S. and Fox were locked in protracted negotiations that concluded with a one-year deal. Under terms of the deal, Fox agreed to improve its coverage of the league with pre- and postgame shows that it branded as “Soccer Night in America.” Fox, however, continues to carry its nightly report from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and although that show has increased its M.L.S. coverage, it remains focused primarily on the English Premier League, a situation that has irked M.L.S. officials for years.
But Garber was quick to say that “this was not a negative statement about Fox Soccer, it’s a positive statement about NBC Sports and its newly branded network. Fox has done a terrific job promoting sport. and we hope to keep working with them.”