- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

Major League Soccer yesterday completed a TV deal with ABC Sports and ESPN that not only will keep its games on the two networks through 2006, but also will give MLS the American broadcast and sales rights to the men's and women's World Cup events for the next five years.

In the complex arrangement, MLS will not receive any rights fees from the Walt Disney Co.-owned networks for their own games or the World Cups. Rather, MLS will assume the responsibility of selling ad time during the games and coordinating TV production on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, keeping most of the revenues generated from their efforts.

The league and its investors, primarily Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, have created a new company to handle the TV sales and production and seek out other soccer programming to air in the future. The as-yet-unnamed company, to be run by league commissioner Don Garber, will be a companion operation to MLS.

ABC and ESPN have broadcast World Cup soccer since 1994 and MLS games since the league's 1996 inception. MLS acquired the U.S. English-language World Cup rights for an estimated $40million from German media company Kirch Group.

Garber hailed the deal as a critical step forward in promoting and televising soccer in America. But many challenges await the struggling league. MLS will receive no guaranteed money in the accord, and the TV sales market by many accounts is weaker than it has been in decades.

Additionally, the league's sales record to date as witnessed by a steady turnover of corporate sponsors, its inability to attract new league investors and stalled efforts to build several new soccer stadiums is not strong.

Additionally, this year's men's World Cup will be held in South Korea and Japan. Most games will be played between 2:30a.m. and 7:30a.m. Eastern time, which will diminish American viewership.

Garber, however, said the allure is still strong for the world's most popular sporting event, even if that title does not hold true in the United States.

"As a one-off deal for the 2002 World Cup, it didn't make sense with ABC, didn't make sense for us," he said. "We got a more comprehensive, strategic deal by packaging the World Cup with MLS."

All 64 of this summer's World Cup games will be televised live among ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. A minimum of 29 MLS games will be televised this coming season, almost all of them on ESPN2.

Meanwhile, the league remains undecided about its lineup of teams for the 2002 season. Schedules have not been determined, and the possibility of eliminating two teams still exists. Garber had hoped to reach and announce a decision before the holidays.

"Nothing has been decided," Garber said. "We're still working on finalizing and organizing ourselves in a way that there are no changes. We're not at that point yet."


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