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Were The Fire Ahead Of The Curve With The ESPN+ Deal?

A new report suggests the entire league might be heading in a similar direction

MLS: D.C. United at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been about a year since the Chicago Fire announced their broadcast deal with ESPN+, opting not to offer games to local terrestrial TV stations. Since then, opinions among Fire fans remain decidedly mixed— and that’s putting it charitably. The club still clearly have kinks to work out, but it’s safe to say that the subscription streaming service will likely be the only consistent option to watch Fire games without making the trek to Bridgeview.

The Fire were one of the only clubs in Major League Soccer to forego a local broadcast deal in favor of a digital streaming service. LAFC beat them to the punch, awarding English-language local broadcast rights to YouTube TV. (Local Spanish-language broadcasts are shown on local UniMás affiliate KFTR.) And starting this season, local broadcasts of DC United games will be streamed on FloSports. (You may remember FloSports as the formerly obscure service that carried Bastian Schweinsteiger’s Bayern Munich testimonial last summer.)

So there’s definitely a trend going. Even so, the Fire seemed to be taking a huge risk with the ESPN+, and it wasn’t obvious that the club would make enough of a return on their investment to make it worthwhile.

Yet a new development this week suggests that maybe, just maybe, the Fire made a smart bet.

A report in Sports Business Journal this week revealed that MLS has told all current teams and the incoming expansion franchises not to broker any local broadcast deals that extend beyond 2022. (The SBJ article is behind a paywall; Awful Announcing has a decent summary.) The league’s current national broadcast deals expire in 2022 and, per the SBJ report, the league is looking to bundle local and national broadcast rights in one big package.

Since last year, ESPN+ has effectively served as the third-party vendor for MLS Live, offering all out-of-market league games to stream live and on-demand. As the Awful Announcing posts suggests, it would make sense for the league to expand their current deal with ESPN+ and have the streaming service carry all MLS games that aren’t shown for national audiences on the main ESPN networks or on Fox Sports.

In other words— every team in MLS may end up having the same “local” broadcast arrangement that the Fire do now.

In this context, that ESPN+ deal may end up being smart business on the Fire’s part. The thinking goes: the Fire didn’t have great local broadcast market penetration anyway, any new local deal with either deliver a meager ROI or end up costing the club money, and they saw which way the wind was blowing with over-the-top streaming services. The Fire FO guessed— correctly, it now appears— that digital streaming for local broadcast rights was where the league was headed and figured there was an opportunity to be had in becoming an early adopter.

Obviously, the ESPN+ arrangement still needs some work. In particular, the club needs to do more outreach to bars and other venues for watch parties. The $5-per-month price point seems reasonable enough— especially when you factor in out-of-market MLS games, plus Serie A, plus the FA Cup and English Football League, plus all their non-soccer programming— but once ESPN inevitably jacks up the price, even those who currently defend the deal may find themselves in a bind. And generally speaking, the club should’ve done a lot more last year to get buy-in from the fans.

But if the league does indeed move toward bundling all local and national rights together, and pushing ESPN+ or some other digital platform for all league games, the Fire may end up coming out ahead after all.