NEW YORK (AP) — ESPN and Fox executives see devoted fans at Major League Soccer matches and figure burgeoning national television viewership is soon to follow.
It hasn't happened yet despite Americans' surging interest in international soccer and MLS's success in building stadiums designed for the sport. The networks are betting that will change in the next eight years, agreeing to pay more in a new long-term contract.
"We've been a little puzzled. Clearly when we did the last deal we would've expected to see a higher growth curve," ESPN President John Skipper said. "We're kind of doubling down. We still think it's going to happen."
And they're confident they can help make that happen with a major promotional push.
"We know what we can do with this," Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said, "and we know that this is a deal for the future, not just right now."
The agreements announced Monday with MLS and U.S. Soccer run through 2022. Univision Deportes also extended its contract for Spanish-language rights.
One of MLS's goals was to lock in the same day for a game of the week throughout the entire season for the first time. Univision will air a match every Friday night. And a doubleheader will take place every Sunday — one game on ESPN at 5 p.m. Eastern time, then the nightcap on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m.
"We think that will help drive ratings," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
It's the first time ESPN has agreed to be part of a regular doubleheader across two networks, Skipper said. He's noticed that his company and its competitors are cooperating with each other more lately on leagues they both televise, realizing that a healthy sport benefits everyone.
The contract also includes the men's and women's national team games for which U.S. Soccer holds the rights, including exhibitions and home World Cup qualifiers. ESPN and FS1 will split about 10 men's team matches each year.
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