Nearly lost in the hubbub surrounding Jurgen Klinsmann's debut in the friendly against Mexico was an announcement that may have as much of an impact on the influence of soccer in this country as the selection of the national team coach. MLS and NBC Sports have announced that they've reached a deal to televise some 43 MLS matches, including three playoff games, as well as four contests featuring the national team, over the next two seasons.
This deal, which replaces the current relationship with Fox Soccer Channel set to end in 2011, will just about double the number of homes receiveing the broadcasts, even though the lion's share of the matches will be broadcast on the new NBC Sports Network, currently known as Versus.
This story has been covered on multiple platforms (links below) but I just wanted to highlight a few things about the deal.
First of all, just as an example, Versus is currently channel 25 on my cable lineup (admittedly, I have comcast, which owns the network,) while Fox Soccer Channel is channel 727, and requires buying a special sports package. Even if i ditch all the upper tiers of my cable package, I still get the new NBC Sports channel with basic service. I know its not like that everywhere, for instance in my old neighborhood, where we had Cablevision, Versus was one of the higher channels and FSC was included in the first tier packages. But based on what I've read, my current situation seems to be more common.
While Fox has certainly made strides in their production values and in their pre- and postgame shows, one would think that NBC would start from a higher baseline. The quality of their hockey telecasts has been impressive, and no one at Fox Sports has the cachet of NBC sports personalities like Bob Costas or Bryant Gumbel. Obviously no announcement has been made as to the lineup for any studio shows or broadcasts yet, but the association of the sport with mainstream presenters like this means not only increased exposure but also respect and credibility for the still-growing league.
If a deal like this turns out to be a success for both parties, it will mean increased revenues as well, as it will increase the amount of money the league can demand for its product. This could in turn help to remove or alleviate the financial strictures, which while necessary to keep the fledgling league from overextending itself, will ultimately keep it from rising to the top echelon of worldwide soccer.
Also of note were two comments from the MLS Commissioner. Garber pointed out that this offer was not solicited by the league, but was NBC's idea. He also remarked on NBC's history of promoting its partners, and mentioned that as one of the factors that led the league to make a deal with them.
I think that the impact of the espn deal signed a few years ago has been huge. Even though espn doesn't exactly pull out all the stops for MLS, they have built a pretty good soccer broadcast team there. I would love it if there was some dedicated show, like NFL live, or NASCAR now, even if it was only a weekly recap, but i guess we can't have it all, and their coverage of the national team has been better than I would have hoped.
As important as the espn exposure has been, I think this NBC deal has the potential to be even bigger. It will raise the level of exposure as well as the level of respectability of the league. This comes at the perfect time, as more and more teams add international players as DPs, generating more interest. It can also create more competition for future contracts and increase the financial viability of the league.