Labor Issues Loom as MLS, Nets Prep For 20th Season

Major League Soccer, armed with new national TV contracts, dedicated match windows, a pair of new clubs and bookended by last summer’s World Cup from Brazil and the upcoming women’s tourney in Canada in June, has momentum on its side ahead of its 20th anniversary season.

But the milestone campaign is being threatened by labor issues as the players association seeks higher salaries and some form of free agency from MLS. The league has operated from its 1996 inaugural season as a  single-entity structure, limited liability company that collectively owns all of what are now 20 clubs.

The collective bargaining agreement expired on Jan. 31, but training camps have continued unabated. Reports indicated the sides met in New York on Feb. 24-25 with several team owners in the room for the first time. The players union and league management are expected to join federal mediators in Washington, beginning on Sunday, for three days of bargaining sessions aimed at bridging differences.

Should the league and players association come to terms, or continue to negotiate, UniMas and Univision Deportes Network will simulcast the March 6 opener with the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy hosting the Chicago Fire at 10 p.m. (ET),

Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez noted the match will mark the first time Spanish-language services, aggregating their ratings, kick off a major U.S. sports league’s campaign,

As part of new eight-year deals worth $90 million annually – up from $27 million under the last rights pact –the Univision-owned services will be the Friday night place for MLS action.

ESPN2 – the worldwide leader has been with the league since its inception – has the 5 p.m. window on Sundays, while Fox Sports 1 will serve up matches at 7 p.m., creating a de facto futbol doubleheader. In addition to authenticated TVE products, WatchESPN and Fox Sports Go, streaming the matches, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes are also televising those contests. 

In fact, all national games will be presented in Spanish, as MLS looks to build on its Latino base, whom already represent one-third of the league's fans..

The other matches will play on Saturdays, with local/regional sports outlets carrying the matches.  The new clubs – Orlando City FC and New York City FC – squaring off in their league bow on ESPN2 on March 8. A 30-minute pregame show provides a lead-in.

“The ability to drive viewers to the respective time slots is going to be huge for the networks and the league. The new scheduling on Saturdays is also good for the clubs in being able to market and get fans to the games, and for the players in terms of practice and routines,” said senior vice president of programming Scott Guglielmino, noting over the years games were played at various times to accommodate network window wishes.

“As thrilled as we are with the increase in rights fees, the league and our fans are going to benefit more from the consistency of scheduling and promotion that will create appointment viewing,” MLS president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures Gary Stevenson, who said last season matches were held on seven different days and 28 starting times.

The MLS brand is also expanding abroad. Sky Sports inked a deal to cover two games weekly, and other international rights pacts are expected to be announced shortly. “These will serve as platforms to other players who may be looking to MLS as an on-field option,” said Stevenson. This season, major internationals such as Kaka, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Frank Lampard, will join MLS rosters.

Stateside, there will be heightened levels of production. Each partner will originate telecasts from the stadium, with talent on-site at the various stadia.

Promotion will also ratchet up. David Nathanson, general manager and COO of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, said that during the league's Feb. 23 broadcast meeting in Orlando, discussions not only centered about cross-promotion among the national partners, but how “the regionals and local stations carrying games on Saturdays will make viewers aware of the big matches on ESPN and Fox on MLS Soccer Sundays.” Fox is returning to the MLS pitch after presenting league matches from 2003-11.

Nathanson noted the domestic league will also benefit from promotion during Fox Sports’ coverage of FIFA’s distaff quadrennial north of the border. “It’s the perfect opportunity to expose new fans of Women’s World Cup to MLS,” he said.

FSI  opens with one of its three doubleheaders on March 8 -- Sporting Kansas City hosting the New York Red Bulls at 7 p.m. followed by the Seattle Sounders entertaining the eastern conference champion New England Revolution.  The network’s coverage will feature on-site, pre- and post-game and halftime segments,, with a field reporter and soccer insider flanking the talent in the booth.

Nathanson said the network will also serve up an expanded post-game show after its Sunday primetime match, opening the pitch to Garbage Time with Katie Nolan, at 9:30 p.m..,starting  March 15.

Gugliemo, said the worldwide leader will enhance MLS’s presence on ESPN FC show that airs weekdays on ESPNews at 6 p.m, and Sundays at midnight on ESPN2. “The social buzz for MLS is a virtuous part of the soccer conversation among fans,” he said.

The website features many league-specific elements, including an oral history of the circuit and 20 of its key moments.

“Twenty years is a big anniversary for MLS. It’s a busy sports landscape that’s only become more competitive over the years with other sports and other soccer leagues,” said Gugliemo. “MLS has grown in the marketplace and the in-stadium experience for fans is tremendous. It’s a big anniversary and ESPN is very proud to be part of it.”

Univision is upping its MLS game considerably via a relaunched website. It will also offer an English-language SAP option for all its telecasts, with former U.S. national team player Paul Caligiuri providing the commentary.

“Whether in Spanish or English, soccer fans are going to feel a great level of excitement for MLS,” said Rodriguez.

Univision’s Saturday coverage of Liga MX, the most-watched soccer circuit in North America, for the first time will include live look-ins of MLS action and goals.  Although Rodriguez recognizes it could result in some loss of viewership for Liga MX matches, “the goal is to grow the sport overall.”

He also noted that Univision’s game plan also calls for Somos MLS (We Are MLS), to air on UDN, beginning on March 8, at 10 p.m., and serve as a weekly recap, highlight show for the league.

MLS segments are on tap for Republica Deportiva, Futbol Club, Contacto Deportivo and Locura Deportiva, and the U.S. Spanish-language media leader also will leverage player appearances within some of its entertainment programming.

The new contract also calls for flex scheduling for the penultimate weekend, so the three national partners can televise the most important matches. That leads to “Decision Day” on Oct. 25, the final Sunday of the 2015 regular-season. Stevenson explained that five games in the Eastern Conference will unfold concurrently at 5 p.m., with one game airing on FSI and another on UniMás. Immediately following at 7 p.m.,, all five Western Conference match-ups will unfold, with one game airing on ESPN2 and  a second on UDN. All of the other contests will be showcased across network and league digital platforms, so fans can keep abreast for the final push toward playoff seedings.

The 2015 postseason will feature a dozen teams, with all of the games appearing nationally for the first time. FS1 and ESPN2 will cover the playoffs in their entirety, save for a pair of games on the Univision services. Alternating the events over the course of the contract, FS1 will air the All-Star Game this summer, while ESPN2 has MLS Cup.

Echoing sentiments expressed by the others, Nathanson is sanguine about the league’s Nielsens fortunes.

“With the commitment from the networks with the telecasts and the distinct, destinations for viewers where they know they can find the action, we’re giving MLS its best chance to [improve ratings] in its 20 years,” he said.

But first, the matches have to begin.