The USL announced today that the league has entered into a partnership with ESPN that will include live broadcasts of matches and additional coverage through ESPN FC. To this point in the 2016 season, USL matches could only be accessed by a national audience via streaming on YouTube.
Twenty exclusive regular season matches, going by the name of “USL Game of the Week” will be aired on ESPN 3, beginning with tonight’s contest between the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Orlando City B. The league remains committed to streaming matches on YouTube and Match Center with the exception of matches that will be aired on ESPN 3.
The other 5 USL Game of the Week contests that have been identified so far include:
- Louisville City FC vs Pittsburgh Riverhounds, April 27, 7:30 PM ET
- Rochester Rhinos vs Charlseton Battery, May 6, 7:05 PM ET
- Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC vs Portland Timbers 2, May 13, 9:00 PM ET
- San Antonio FC vs Rio Grande Valley FC, May 25, 8:30 PM ET
- Sacramento Republic FC vs. Real Monarchs SLC, June 8, 11:00 PM ET
In addition to the 20 USL Games of the Week, the 2016 USL Championship will be broadcast on an ESPN television channel. The original announcement stated that it will be an over-the-air broadcast, but the league does not expect ABC to be the network that carries the match. The ESPN fall programming schedule, which is dominated by college football, must be considered before the channel carrying the USL Championship is determined.
The partnership with ESPN does little to affect deals that individual teams have brokered with local television affiliates. Local on-air personalities will still provide the play-by-play and color commentary, but the video feed from ESPN 3 will be used.
The announcement of the partnership comes as little surprise to those who have been paying much attention to the league. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds revealed tonight’s contest would be aired on ESPN 3, and some fans had already noticed USL content listed on ESPN 3’s lineup. In the preseason, this publication hinted that something new was coming around the bend.
What does this mean for the future of the USL on YouTube beyond 2016? A league source stated that the USL will be streaming in the future, but stopped short of indicating a platform.
The deal with ESPN lifts the image of the league, but a potential move away from free streams toward paid content could send some fans scrambling for their pitchforks. The end of free streaming, if it comes, would probably still be a net positive for the USL. It is unlikely that the move would completely alienate the die-hard supporters that search for the games on YouTube, even if those fans do not have access to ESPN 3. A consistent high-quality broadcast would also be likely for every aired game, which is sorely lacking in the league’s current programming.
What are the financial terms of the deal between the USL and ESPN? The league does not discuss financial terms. Even if ESPN did not pay the league a cent for the rights to broadcast matches, the league stands to profit from new fans that the partnership will create. Soccer loving people are more likely to accidentally stumble across the USL on ESPN 3 than they are on YouTube. The odds of this serendipity increase for televised matches.
There is more news to come with regard to the “broad based media and digital strategy” to which the league referred in its announcement today. That news is scheduled to be released early next week. It should make the TV picture much clearer.