Why MLS’ $4 billion headline is about forcing uncomfortable conversations
If it’s mid-summer, it must be silly season. And sure enough, right in between European teams ambling around mass-audience training sessions and speculation on which seventh-choice player did enough in the Gold Cup, Riccardo Silva baited headlines with a reported $4 billion bid for 10 years of MLS' global media rights.
The “offer” was quickly and publicly given the “that’s not how this works” treatment by the league, which pointed out that the current rights holders, ESPNFC, Fox and Univision, are in the early stages of a deal that runs through 2022 and includes an exclusive renegotiating window. Even if the league were interested, there’s no procedural mechanism to allow for conversations, with six years left on the current agreement.
That assumes this is a good-faith offer in the first place. The timing, outlandish scale and key contingencies of the offer seem more a shot across the bow than genuine desire to work together.
The key contingency, of course, would be adopting a promotion and relegation model. Silva’s MP & Silva media group would then sell the rights to MLS internationally, and not coincidentally, Silva’s NASL team, Miami FC, would have a shot of playing in the big show.
The calculus involved in such an offer seems like cynical grandstanding, at best. Obviously, the story has broken in part because Sports Business Daily’s reporting on Silva’s abortive attempts to move the pro-rel discussion forward during a meeting with MLS in late June. But the news was always likely to get out, and perhaps, from Silva’s perspective, it was always likely to come out at a time to cause maximum discomfort for the league.
After all, next week is the All-Star Game, and aside from the competitive froth of the game itself, the week is an informal conference for owners, sponsors, media, and the MLS executives who interface with all of them. In the vast territory the league covers, these gatherings are significant moments, and depending on the circumstances the league finds itself in, in any given year, they can have a particular tone to them.
In 2013, for example, a lot of the background dealing that started the great reverse migration of U.S. internationals took place at the All-Star Game. That not only described the tone of many conversations that week, but it set the tone for the next few years, including highlighting the widening schism between the strategic goals of Jurgen Klinsmann and the top domestic league.
Whether inadvertently or not, the Silva offer may have a similar refracting effect on the future conversations about the media landscape of the league. It plays into one of the perennial anxieties around MLS — its ability to move the ratings needle — and does so at a key time in the current rights deal.
I interviewed ESPN boss John Skipper in New York at the announcement of the current deal and asked if he felt it represented value for money. His smiling reply was, “Generally, you hope that a good deal pays for itself towards the end of its lifetime, rather than the beginning,” which was as diplomatic as possible, given the slow growth of MLS viewing figures. Few present had any doubt the combined U.S. national team media rights had driven the deal.
While MLS viewing figures get better year over year, Skipper and his peers at Fox and Univision will not be high-fiving at how their bonus-prize is performing come this stage of the 2023 cycle. For a hotter property, the MP & Silva bid might accelerate a renegotiation strategy, but as it is, ESPN & Co. are being invited to contemplate the value of their current deal before it’s had a chance to bear fruit.
MLS commissioner Don Garber hasn’t talked much recently, as he used to, of “the ghost of NASL” and its feckless haunting of MLS corridors, but the Silva offer raises the specter of an MLS ghost of Christmas future, one that only succeeded in consolidating a minority sport instead of driving it to the limitless expansion on offer from an ambitious NASL owner.
At least, that’s what we’re invited to think when we hear of eye-watering numbers, or of Silva’s utopian vision, where, as he put it in a letter to Garber, “MLS would be the major beneficiaries of an open, meritocratic system because it would stimulate greater fan interest, excitement, quality and engagement in the domestic game.”
The dissonance between the proposed scale and the current reality is key here. Glancing from the number $4 billion to the current realities of the NASL puts me in mind of looking at the Photoshop renderings of the New York Cosmos proposed stadium at Belmont while sitting in the cramped press box at Hofstra Stadium. It’s neither an insult to the Cosmos nor a failure of imagination to find it impossible to visualize a path between the suburban, college-astroturfed reality and the gleaming pixelated spaceship being proposed.
And likewise, MP & Silva are not a conglomerate arriving from nowhere, or from a tier of American sports business practices MLS could only dream of. They are a credible player, for sure, with existing soccer rights, as well as tennis and motor sports. Among other deals, they are halfway through a five-year deal brokering NFL media rights in Europe. But they’re not a proven game-changer, as yet; in fact, MLS replaced MP & Silva as international rights distributors with IMG in October 2014, soon followed by significant deals with the likes of Sky (UK), Eurosport, Globosport (Brazil) and Abu Dhabi Sports Channel (Middle East and North Africa). The scale of the IMG deals was nothing like the numbers MP & Silva have been throwing about, but they’ve increased the footprint and visibility of MLS on a scale that appears credible and sustainable.
The problem is, you can apply all the sense in the world to looking at this offer and still be swept away by the combined force of the conveniently unprovable financial scale with the political rallying cry that promotion and relegation has become. It’s in the sweet spot of silly season. But it doesn’t mean it won’t have serious consequences.