The Fox/ESPN deal looks great on paper -- especially with ESPN hosting the World Cup and Fox hosting the next two in 2018 and 2022 -- but it requires a little perspective. MLS bolted from Fox as quickly as it could in 2011 because it felt the network wasn't giving soccer or MLS the treatment it deserved. NBC not only cobbled together some great soccer coverage, but it became so adept at it that it wrested coverage of the English Premier League away from Fox. When Fox and ESPN wanted MLS back, they made a monster offer -- in MLS terms. By comparison, NBC's new deal with the National Hockey League costs it $200 million per season to cover a sport that's supposedly on the wane in the U.S.
The lucrative part of that deal is the U.S. men's national team matches that are packaged with MLS broadcast rights. While MLS clubs will get $3 million more apiece, Fox and ESPN get a league that saw ratings decline 29% during its time on ESPN and ESPN2 and saw them drop 8% on NBC Sports in 2013. Last year, a playoff semifinal between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake drew so few viewers that it was not only the lowest-rated broadcast among the 139 programs ESPN aired that week, but it was beaten by a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Those are mid-market teams that average more than 19,000 fans per game and rank among MLS' Top 10 for attendance. If those towns aren't tuning in to watch MLS games, nobody is.
Though total MLS attendance has risen every year since 2002, average attendance still fluctuates and dropped 1.1% last year after reaching a league-record 18,807 in 2012. That typically gets a boost during World Cup years, with average attendance in 2002, 2006 and 2010 rising 5.8%, 2.6% and 4%, respectively, but that event hasn't cured all of MLS' ills before. The last time the league dropped teams, it did so after the U.S. men's team best-ever World Cup run.
The league is clearly hoping that dropping two teams in Florida and yet another team in the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Philadelphia will stir up rivalries like the Vancover/Seattle/Portland Cascadia Cup contests in the Pacific Northwest. However, the two-team approach didn't work in Los Angeles, where MLS just had to buy out Chivas USA, and expansion of any kind tends to dilute the talent pool and diminish the product on the field. With the MLS players' union's deal with the league expiring this year, additional issues with the talent are about the last thing Major League Soccer needs.
For a league that is just completing its shift from oversized football stadiums and owners with multiple franchises to soccer-specific stadiums and owners for each team, MLS is stepping into yet another period of uncertainty. This is going to be a great year for MLS and its fans and a great chance for casual soccer fans to finally hook on with the U.S. version of the game.
Where MLS takes all of this year's potential in 2015 and beyond is anyone's guess.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
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-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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