ESPN considering MLS for new online rights model

US sports broadcaster ESPN is considering selling online access to live Major League Soccer games to consumers without pay-television subscriptions, according to Reuters.

The news agency said the experiment could help ESPN find ways to generate revenue outside the traditional pay-television system.

Pay-television operators currently provide the majority of ESPN’s revenue through fees they pay to carry its cable channels and the WatchESPN online app. ESPN president John Skipper said that while the network is committed to its current business model, which requires a pay-television subscription for access to its cable channels and WatchESPN, he added there may be other ways to add revenue.

“We've just got to think about other business models,” Skipper said. “We're not far along on any them, but we do think about how we might capture more money direct from consumers.”

Skipper maintained that any direct-to-consumer product would have to involve new programming that is separate from content offered through ESPN’s pay-television deals. When asked what specifically ESPN was considering, Skipper pointed to the broadcaster’s recent deal with MLS as an opportunity.

ESPN, along with pay-television counterparts Fox Sports and Univision Deportes, this month acquired rights for MLS, North America’s top football league, and the US men’s and women’s national teams. The new deals will run for eight years, from 2015 to 2022, and were agreed with MLS and the US Soccer governing body.

ESPN and Fox Sports will show a minimum of 34 Sunday regular-season games per season each on an exclusive basis, and will share MLS Cup Playoff coverage, with MLS Cup programming alternating between the broadcasters from year to year. ESPN’s multi-screen service, ESPN3, and WatchESPN secured MLS’s out-of-market package, which will feature more than 200 games per year on Saturdays.

Skipper added: “You saw us buy MLS digital rights. It was a clue, but we still don't know what we will do with that. That's a direct-to-consumer package we bought. We could do it just like it's done now through multichannel distributors or we can do something different with it to go direct to the consumer.”