Comparing soccer to college football is an apples and oranges endeavor, especially since the heart of the MLS schedule is played with no regular season competition from the NBA, NHL or NFL. Soccer attracts a younger professional demographic that is hard for television to reach so that drives value as well.
Despite the obvious differences there are things to be learned that can be useful in understanding the TV marketplace.
You have likely here, or on a message board, seen me declare that the "market driven" approach is dead. There may still be people in places of influence who buy into the idea that large markets are the key to large TV dollars but they do not understand what is happening around them.
Of the 20 largest TV markets, six do not have an MLS team nor one planned. There is only one team in the markets rated 21 to 30. MLS has a team each in markets 31, 32, and 33. Out of the 122 NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL teams only 13 are in markets smaller than those three.
Rather than expanding based on the size of the TV market, MLS has mostly expanded based on how well a city is supporting lower division professional soccer. If there is a fan base and a potential owner, a city is seen as viable even if it isn't a large TV market. They value ability to draw a crowd over some arbitrary TV market number.
The current TV marketplace is not driven by TV markets because most TV sports programming is national or at least regional. When there were fewer channels and local broadcast TV shaped the rights fees, local markets were a big deal because that determined in large part what ad rates could be charged.
TV CARRIAGE FEES
Today the TV economy is based on carriage fees. ESPN earns 75% of its income from a fee charged to cable and satellite companies to show the channel based on the number of subscribers.
The ability of a network to demand high carriage fees comes down to how passionate their customers are about the programming on the channel. If Suddenlink were to drop ESPN there would be a flood of irate sports fans trying to get signed up for another service. If the channel Fuse was dropped most likely very few SuddenLink customers would know it was gone.
ESPN is willing to pay the ACC $300 million per year because they want content that makes ESPN a must have channel. Consider that East Carolina in football compares very favorably to the four ACC schools in North Carolina, or look how BYU compares to Utah of the Pac-12. The ACC members receive almost ten times as much in TV dollars as ECU, Utah receives about 7 or 8 times more in TV money than BYU. Utah playing the same teams as BYU would likely draw fewer viewers than BYU but the Pac-12 is more important to ESPN and Fox in getting cable and satellite to pay large fees.
Value in the TV carriage fee economy is not based on how many watch but rather how many would leave if the product were not available on your service but available from a competitor.
Ratings for MLS would make you think that a 5X increase in fees isn't warranted. MLS now makes more than the American Athletic Conference, a market driven conference playing football and basketball which are much more popular than soccer in the US.
It should be apparent by now that something else is at play here.
INTERNET CARRIAGE FEES
Years ago Major League Soccer's leadership believed that exposure was vital. They couldn't get all their games on national TV or even a third of their games on national TV. So they mandated every team do a high quality broadcast of their games and get it on local TV or regional cable so fans in the market would see it was a product worth being on TV. Their management also wanted fans around the country to be able to see games as well. They started with a PPV package called DirectKick (similar to ESPN GamePlan).
As technology improved, they added a web based version called MLS Live. The league added the capability to watch MLS Live on phones and tablets as well as on Roku and Apple TV through the MatchDay app. MLS Live became far more popular than DirectKick because you could catch a game while away from home or watch it in high definition at home on your TV rather than only at home.
Why is it that MLS with two national broadcasts per week with one on ESPN2 and one on FS1 5X more valuable than basically that same deal with ESPN2 and NBC Sports?
Very simple. ESPN bought the digital rights this time.
ESPN charges internet providers a small fee to make ESPN3 available to their customers. Cable and satellite can also pay an added fee for their customers to receive ESPN3 content on the WatchESPN website and apps as well as ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and so on. The internet providers do not get access to the programs on the ESPN TV channels.
MLS was very successful in gaining subscribers to the $65 per season service. The word around MLS is that ESPN will shut it down and move those games to ESPN3. Over the next few years as ESPN negotiates new and renewed agreements for ESPN3 expect internet provider, cable and satellite executives to be given full details on how many people on their service had been willing to pay $65 a year for content that is now bundled into ESPN3. That will be followed with the threat that this is a dedicated fan base that will be a risk to move if the company doesn't pay up.
This is the first truly internet driven big television deal in sports.
The rise of internet delivery is going to make that an important field for the TV networks. The problem for ESPN in expanding their lead there is that very little of the prime content such as the four major pro leagues and top and mid-level power five conference content can go to ESPN3 either because the leagues own their own competing service or it contractually has to be on the primary television channels and cannot be offered to viewers without a cable or satellite subscription. If ESPN2 were available as part of ESPN3 without a cable or satellite subscription, those customers would be likely to abandon cable or satellite.
ESPN riding ahead of the curve and is busy locking up digital rights. The more content they lock up the greater leverage ESPN will have to command high carriage fees for their internet telecasts.
More consumers are buying smart TV's and buying devices like Apple TV, Roku, and the new Kindle Fire TV to allow them more viewing options. ESPN probably won't be able to offer them Michigan vs. Ohio State or Alabama vs. LSU without a cable or satellite subscription but they can offer massive volume. While USC vs. Notre Dame may be on ABC, on ESPN3 they may offer 20 or more games. None of those games will be attracting that level of viewership yet attracting enough loyal viewers to make ESPN3 an essential part of their internet or TV subscription.
This transition makes it imperative for AState and Sun Belt games to make sure they are locally producing as many games as they can possibly afford for distribution to local TV and regional cable that are then sent on to be carried by ESPN3.
There are a limited number of slots for AState and the Sun Belt on conventional cable networks with any reach and presence. That is why the few slots generally available are on weeknights. Yet the door remains open to nearly unlimited telecasts on Saturdays via internet delivery. That market remains open and while the number of potential viewers is smaller, it is a growing audience.
The battle plan for AState now becomes build brand awareness through success while more and more people transition to receiving internet delivered programs on their television. If AState becomes one of the programs gaining viewers, AState becomes much more valuable in this new field.