Updated 10:23 AM EDT, Sat, Oct 23, 2021

NBC Bows Out of MLS Broadcast Negotiations With League Likely to Sign With ESPN & Fox Sports

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NBC Sports bowed out of the negotiations for the broadcasts rights to Major League Soccer (MLS) and U.S national team on Friday, ending a three-year relationship with the network to Sports Business Daily's John Ourand.

"We've enjoyed our partnership with MLS. Don Garber and his team are building something very positive, and we wish them well," said NBC, in a statement to SportsBusinessDaily.com.

MLS is still negotiating the final details on their new broadcast deal, with their current agreements with ESPN, NBC Sports, and Univision set to expire at the end of 2014. ESPN and Fox Sports, who placed joint bids estimated to be worth an average of $70 million per for eight years, will likely win the broadcasts rights with an announcement set to come as early as Thursday's 2014 MLS Draft, taking place in Philadelphia.

Fox previously had the "secondary" rights to MLS games between 2003 to 2012, though Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com reports that the league is getting rid of the "primary" and secondary" tiers in their broadcast package. The deal with MLS also gives ESPN and Fox broadcast rights to the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifier home games, allowing Fox to pair the U.S. team's road to the World Cup with their 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup coverage.

MLS's new agreement is a huge increase for their coffers, from its current $27 million per year ($8 million from ESPN, $10 million from NBC, and $9 million from Univision) and should expect more money to come in after they finalize their Spanish-language broadcast rights.

Univision's UniMas network garnered 514,000 viewers compared to ESPN's 505,000 viewers for the 2013 MLS Cup telecast, with league viewership up overall on the Spanish-language network by six percent compared to last season, beating out ESPN2's regular-season coverage. UniMas averaged 223,000 viewers for their Spanish-language telecast compared to 181,000 for ESPN2, despite the worldwide leader's sister station being available in 98,477,000 homes compared to UniMas' 65 million homes.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber is seeking to strengthen the league's national broadcast presence after years of focusing on their game attendance. MLS lags only behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball in average attendance, with the American soccer league averaging 18,611 fans per game this season, ahead of the National Basketball Association (NBA) (averaged 17,348 fans for the 2012-2013 regular-season) and the NHL (averaged 17, 768 fans for the strike-shortened 2012-2013 season).

The broadcast deal also comes on the heels of the league's expansion, with MLS announcing the addition of New York City FC and the Orlando Soccer Lions last year while looking to add teams in the Atlanta, Miami, and Minnesota markets - attracting the interest of investors such as Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, and former English national team captain David Beckham.

"To grow your television ratings, you have to grow your fan base first, and we've been growing our fan base," said Garber late last year. "We have to find a partner that gives us the right schedule, that gives us the right promotion and marketing, that is embracing us in ways that will allow us to have our programming be valuable, and be a priority both for the broadcaster and for our fans."

MLS expects for their television viewership to improve this season as a result of the World Cup ratings "bounce" the league tends to see after the quadrennial tournament ends in July, especially with many players such as Michael Bradley (recently signed by Toronto FC after playing in Italy's Serie A's AS Roma) and current league Most Valuable Player Mike Magee playing both in the American soccer league and for the national team.

"The World Cup always introduces the sport to new fans, and we have seen increases in attendance and other metrics following every World Cup since the league's inception [in 1996]," said MLS President Mark Abbott to SBJ.com. "The U.S. team will feature a core of MLS players such as Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi, providing a tremendous opportunity to deepen our connection with the tens of millions of soccer fans in our country."

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