MLS offers assurances that digital transition to ESPN won't leave cord-cutters behind

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

There's plenty to like in the new TV deal, but there are still gray areas on the digital side.

The headlines trumpeting the new Major League Soccer broadcast rights deal are overwhelmingly positive. Rightfully so. The league is getting an influx of money, to the tune of $90 million a year from a combination of ESPN, Fox and Univision. There will be set-in-stone broadcast times that the league has long sought, with regularly scheduled games on Friday evenings, Sunday afternoons and Sunday evenings. Increased promotion and ancillary programming are all promised to be part of the package.

Especially considering where the league was as recently as six years ago, this is a massive step forward. And none of the smaller details will change that.

But it's those smaller details that will determine just how much of a step forward this deal really is. There are understandable concerns about getting into bed with Fox, a broadcaster whose presentation of soccer has been mostly panned despite their having devoted more hours of broadcasting to the sport than any other network. But as long as Fox comes through on the promotion end, makes good on their promise to put most games on FS1 and manages to educate their on-air talent about the basic structure of the league, the viewing experience should be fine enough.

Aside from those real and more immediate concerns, there's also some understandable trepidation about the digital product, which will only grow in importance over the contract's eight years. Specifically, there's significant concern -- at least among the growing legion of so-called cord-cutters -- over what will happen to MLS Live, the subscription service that allows fans to view out-of-market games that aren't being nationally televised.

This may seem relatively minor today -- and it probably is, especially in comparison to issues like games being on FS1 vs. FS2 -- but as the deal goes on, it will only get bigger. It's virtually impossible to know how many people will ditch cable over the next eight years, but there's a clear trend, especially among younger people, in that direction. These consumers use phones, tablets, desktops or "over-the-top" devices like Roku and AppleTV to circumvent cable bills. They are also the people who make up a significant portion of MLS Live's current users.

With ESPN taking control of out-of-market games, the main functionality of both services is effectively going away for the American audience -- MLS Live will still having streaming available for Canadian subscribers. ESPN will eventually be putting those games on ESPN3, which is part of the WatchESPN online service. Under the current model, only internet users who subscribe through a pre-approved ISP have access to that content. The good news is that ESPN3 is effectively a free add-on for those users and that the user base is already about 92 million people. The bad news? If you don't use one of the pre-approved ISPs there's no way to get the service. And while the ESPN user base dwarfs that of MLS Live, it's arguably more important to make the service available to smaller group who wants it and will use it than a larger group who may not even notice the value-add.

This has been a rather hot topic among MLS digital folks, who are quite aware that a vocal and not-insignificant portion of the fanbase would be cut off from this service under the current setup. Although there's not a ton of on-the-record information, MLS officials have been very clear that they've been given assurances by ESPN that these streams will be available to everyone in the United States without having to change ISPs.

What form that will take is still undecided. There's a possibility that ESPN could strike a more comprehensive deal with ISPs, offer the service on some kind of subscription basis or come up with some other solution. But acquiring the digital rights to out-of-market streams was a significant part of this deal and the reason MLS agreed to it was due largely to these assurances.

What is less clear is how the user experience on ESPN3 will compare to a dedicated platform like MLS Live. As its currently structured, there's a lot of hunting that has to be done on the ESPN site to find a specific video and there's certainly not anything dedicated to MLS. This could obviously change and maybe there's some integration that can be done through the MLS apps and websites, but that, too, is in the wait-and-see category. In 2015, at least, there's even a strong possibility that the user experience will be very similar to how it is now.

How many users will ultimately be affected by this change? That's nearly impossible to know. MLS has never released subscriber numbers, but it's probably a relatively small figure in the grander picture.

Regardless of how big or small that may be, this is clearly a growing segment of the audience. More and more people are "cutting the cord" on TV and phone service, and those people are a valuable segment of the population for a growing league like MLS. By the time this broadcast deal ends in eight years, that group will only have grown larger and more powerful. It is absolutely in the league's best interest to make sure those people are at least placated, if not necessarily fully satisfied.

As much as this deal may have been about the TV product, the success or failure of the digital transition will likely lay the ground work for the next contract. Assuming all these promises are kept, there's every reason to believe that the online product will be available to far more people and hopefully used by significantly more as well. Some skepticism is always warranted, but right now it looks like they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

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