MLS will air its MLS Cup final on ABC in 2019, putting the league’s championship match back on that network for the first time since 2008.
The match will also be aired on the Univision Network and TUDN in the U.S., as well as on TSN and TVA Sports in Canada, which will give the MLS Cup final its broadest domestic distribution ever.
The shift in networks comes amid MLS shortening its playoff format this season. While the 2018 playoffs ran from October 31 to December 8, in 2019 the league’s playoffs will be played entirely within a three-week span that begins on October 19 and culminates with the final on November 10, largely thanks to switching single-game elimination matches thus avoiding FIFA international windows where the league would have to pause to let players leave for national team matches.
MLS Senior Vice President of Media Seth Bacon said that the league believes that the “three-week sprint” created by the new playoff format will ramp up the interest in the matches both from existing and casual MLS fans, building momentum into that widely distributed championship match.
“We think the narrative through the playoffs will be about momentum and that will only continue to grow along the way,” Bacon said. “We’re in a better position to tell that story from start to finish now, and we’ve put ourselves in a position with our media partners to cast a net as far and as wide as we’ve ever had before.”
ESPN’s family of networks has broadcast the league since its inception in 1996, a partnership that helped put the MLS Cup final on ABC in the league’s first 13 seasons before switching to ESPN in 2009. Since 2015 when the league signed new U.S. English language media rights deal with both ESPN and Fox Sports, the match has flip-flopped between the two networks.
To date, the most-viewed MLS Cup final was the inaugural edition in 1996, which aired on ABC and was seen by 3.1 million viewers. Last year’s MLS Cup final, which aired on FOX as well as on UniMas, was viewed by 1.8 million. Four of the top five most-viewed MLS Cup Finals were all aired on ABC.
Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president, programming and scheduling, said that given MLS’s shift in its playoff schedule, the final “lined up well with an available window for ABC.”
“We’re bullish on the future of MLS, and it’s been great to use our array of distribution outlets to showcase the league,” Magnus said. “Their championship game had a great history for many years on ABC, so it’s a great opportunity to take it back over to the broadcast network.”
The shift is not dissimilar to what ESPN does with some of its other high-profile sports rights, such as moving games from the NBA Finals or college football to ABC.
However, the move for MLS is of note as it puts the league’s championship match essentially right alongside the 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET NFL games as the MLS Cup final will be aired at 3 p.m. ET.
On November 10, CBS is scheduled to air the Indianapolis Colts versus the Miami Dolphins at 4:05 PM ET, while FOX is scheduled to air the Los Angeles Rams versus the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4:25 PM ET.
Magnus said it “really becomes tough sledding for every sports property – and it’s not just an MLS-specific issue – that is looking for clear air for their biggest and best games once college football and the NFL hit.”
“It’s difficult to find that in any weekend, but we think that given the shift from December to November, the viewership landscape for MLS Cup won’t change,” Magnus said. “It’s not as deep into the NFL season, and we like the idea of condensing the playoffs and making it a tighter window so that from a media perspective there will be a lot more momentum going into it.”
Magnus said that the network will “put our shoulder behind” the new time slot for the MLS Cup final, noting that it is planning to use the promotional platform provided by the previous day’s slate of college football games to heavily promote MLS’s championship match. “We think it’ll put the match in front of an audience it doesn’t already reach, which will give it a very good chance to succeed.”
For MLS, Bacon said the league has “put itself in a position to have an extremely relevant narrative around its playoffs,” something that will help it fend off a heightened fight for sports fans on that particular day.
The league is currently working on content around the MLS Cup final, which Bacon said will include a wide variety of mediums both on the day of the event as well as the week in advance, something that he believes will help to drive even more viewers to the broadcast.
“We’re in a remarkable position to make a huge impact,” Bacon said. “We know it’s a crowded time of the year, but we’re confident – we’re not scared.”
Magnus said it has not yet been determined what will either lead-in or follow the MLS Cup final broadcast on ABC, nor if the game will have any pre- or post-game coverage on the network.
However, he did leave the door open to more MLS matches finding their way to ABC beyond the championship match next season.
“We look to use the broadcast network platform to complement what we do on the cable network, and on certain weekends where we have conflicts or where we’re loaded up pretty good on the ESPN networks we’re going to look at all the scheduling possibilities and add ABC into the mix – that’s for the total game inventory, and we’ll look to do that in the regular season as well.”
MLS’s domestic media rights deals, including its deal with ESPN, expires following its 2022 season.