MLS has announced a deal today that NBC would take all of the games that FSC currently shows and broadcast four of them on actual NBC and another 38 on what is currently Versus (soon to be NBC Sports Network). NBC, in one of its forms, will also broadcast four US Men’s National Team matches next year. This deal does not affect other deals with ESPN, Univision, or various local Comcast SportsNets. With this move, FSC gets to continue to live its life on the margins, rebroadcasting matches from overseas. NBC continues to grow its alternative sports lineup, while taking a flyer on a sport that many see to be up and coming.
Is there any downside of this for MLS and MLS fans? Not that I can think of. MLS games will be shown on English-language network TV for the first time since 2002; Versus reaches double the amount of homes that FSC does; and Versus and NBC are already available in HD basically everywhere, unlike FSC, where I still don’t have it in HD. As I’ve said before, it looks like 22 blurs running around a field. Yes, finding announcers will be an issue, but I’m sure that NBC can lure away anyone it wants from FSC, if they want any of them. I also expect that there will be some big names (former national teamers) involved in the pre/post game shows, regardless of their prior broadcasting experience.
At $10 million per year, this deal is very cheap for NBC. If it completely fails, they’re not out much money and can move on. But there are parallels to the situation in which MLS currently finds itself and the situation that the NHL found itself in 2004. NBC paid no upfront fees for their deal to broadcast the NHL in 2004, taking only a cut of the advertising money and covering their expenses. The most recent deal between NBC and the NHL, signed in April, is worth over $2 billion over the life of the 10 year deal, including $200 million up front.
Now, obviously, there are differences between MLS and the NHL, even besides that fact that the NHL has existed for almost 100 years. Most NHL fans follow one league and the Olympics when they come around. Most MLS fans pay at least some attention to other leagues, even if only to keep up with some of their favorite ex-MLS players. MLS also has to deal with the issue that there is a large population of soccer fans in the United States that do not watch MLS at all; they watch the Mexican league, the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, or any of a myriad of other leagues. But hey, who’s to say that they couldn’t be turned into casual fans, especially when its twice as easy to find a match?
One final thought: the majority of MLS games are now going to be shown on Comcast owned outlets. They have built their own pyramid of soccer broadcasting: Comcast SportsNets, Versus, and NBC. With some streamlined operation, it may allow for some interesting opportunities. Flex scheduling, for one: Comcast could easily bump a game between two bottom-feeders from Versus and replace it with a game from one of their SportsNets. Just something to think about, but I bet Comcast was thinking of it, and more, when they made this deal.