MLS Television Blackouts: When Emotion and Data Collide / by Jared Young

By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)

Major League Soccer placed a calculated bet a few years back. They wagered they had core fans for life while they went searching for more marginal fans. The first part of this bet became public when MLS announced that ESPN had exercised their right to stream out-of-market games, and they would fold their digital streaming service MLS LIVE. All out-of-market content would move to a new ESPN+ app. It was sold as a great deal for existing fans. MLS Live was running at $70+ per season and the ESPN+ app was under $60 per year, and there was more content available. Sounds like a win, right?

But MLS LIVE wasn’t just an out-of-market service, because thirteen teams in 2017 did not exercise a blackout policy for their local games. Blackouts happen when a game is not televised for a specific group of people. They are very frustrating for fans who have paid for a service yet aren’t able to watch the game on a channel they thought they had paid for. The benefit of MLS LIVE was that fans of those thirteen teams that had severed ties with cable (aka "cut the cord") could watch their local team with the app. As a cord cutting Philadelphia Union fan, one of the teams that did not enforce blackouts, I was very happy with MLS LIVE.

The only blackouts that occurred on MLS LIVE for me were when ESPN or Fox Sports had the game, and that was not a problem because I was getting those stations through my streaming service. However, when MLS decided to put their streaming service in the hands of ESPN they knowingly placed their content in the middle of a war. And they took a bet the outcome of which will play out over the coming years.

ESPN is squarely in the middle of the battle between cable and streaming of typical television content. The latest estimate is that 33 million Americans, about 15% of the television viewing audience, will have moved to streaming by the end of 2018.  That's over 40% higher than the end of 2017 when Cable subscriptions dropped 2.4. These numbers are beating the estimates and they don’t figure to slow down. According to PEW research, 61% of young adults only stream their television which is a demographic that MLS prizes. Cable companies are clearly worried. ESPN is also worried. MLS should be worried.

ESPN extracts large fees from cable companies for the right to air their content. As the subscriber base dwindles, so do the fees. ESPN is aware of the trends and they know that the streaming experience and cost for customers is improving, so they launched a low key streaming service with very limited content., and called it ESPN+. The cable companies will barely raise an eyebrow, but ESPN can now slowly build a base of customers for the future and increasingly improve the content over time. They are playing the long game with ESPN+ while maximizing their fees in the near term.

MLS was probably pretty pleased with this option. They are attached to the biggest sports content brand and get rid of the overhead of running their own streaming app. They must have thought hard about giving up the direct revenue they got from MLS LIVE but their spreadsheets no doubt projected an increase long term as they reached a broader base of fans.

But there was one catch. That pesky war. ESPN still has to make their cable partners happy. MLS is now forced to go along with ESPN on the side of the war that is clearly going to lose.

ESPN has to keep ESPN+ on the downlow so they blackout all local games on cable, and this new deal no longer allows the teams to decide blackouts. Local games on ESPN+ are just blacked out. ESPN+ was correctly billed as an out-of-market streaming service, but unlike MLS LIVE, it truly is one. In Philadelphia, the Union are mostly on a local station WPHL-17, which is not carried by national streaming services. Even when the games are on a “small” station like ABC the games are unable to be viewed by my streaming service. ABC owns basically if I want to watch the Union, I need to have cable. That's approaching 15% of Union fans shut out of watching their team play.

I’d never been subject to MLS blackouts before this season. I have to tell you that the first time I realized I couldn’t watch my Union I was very emotional and angry. I was stomping around the house like a confused kid trying to figure out how to cope. It was an away game. I couldn’t even jump in the car and go to the stadium to watch. The direction of my anger went straight to Major League Soccer, which clearly knew that a good portion of their fans (and growing) would be shut out of watching their games. And given that thirteen of the twenty teams last year had this kind of problem, about 5 to 10 percent of their core fans could be locked out of their local market content. That feels like a pretty big bet. That they chose to sacrifice my watching of games for some ESPN+ subscribers that might some day get interested made me even more infuriated.

The experience for fans all over the U.S. is different no doubt. Some have been dealing with these issues for years. Others are maybe able to watch games through more popular stations or different broadcast arrangements. LAFC actually made a broadcasting arrangement with a streaming service. I hope the Union and all the other MLS teams eventually do the same. Other sports have similar policies. Blackouts have been part of sports viewing for decades. The reasons for them have changed over time but they are a tool that insecure companies use to maximize short term revenue at the expense of the fan experience. MLS and ESPN have their insecurities right now.

But I’m just one soul. I’m just a lost fan that MLS already put into their spreadsheet. Is there data out there that can give us insight into the impact this decision might be having on a broader scale? Streaming data is extremely tightly held. MLS never publicly stated how many MLS LIVE subscribers they had. ESPN+ hasn’t shared anything as it’s still very early. Exactly how many MLS fans watch games via ESPN+ is a great mystery.

Perhaps insight can be found in our collective social commentary. I turned to a company called Crimson Hexagon which specializes in analysis of social data. They were extraordinarily helpful and their data revealed, much to my surprise, that not much has changed in the world of angry blackout conversation.

Here’s is data they provided looking at total internet conversation about MLS Blackouts adjusting for the switch in comments from MLS Live to ESPN+. For context I’ve added the MLS searches from Google over the same time period. The data starts in 2010, when MLS LIVE was originally launched.

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon and Google Trends

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon and Google Trends

The first thing to point out is that the second quarter of this year doesn’t look substantially different from any other year since 2012. In fact, discussion of blackouts has generally been on the decline since the 2nd half of 2012, down 24 percent (2018 Q2 versus 2012 Q3). Meanwhile searches on Google have gone up over that same time frame by 20 percent.

Let’s now look at the sentiment of of those conversations. Crimson Hexagon tools determine the overall tone of the conversations regarding blackout discussion.

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon through June 2017

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon through June 2017

As you can see the conversation has been considered roughly 60% negative since 2010, but the positive discussion has been increasing recently. You might wonder how any conversation of blackouts could be positive. While those discussions mention blackouts, the conversation appears to grant the overall experience to be positive.

Lastly, we can look at comments by region to see if the regions that moved from no blackouts to blackouts, like Philadelphia, saw an uptick in discussion. Here again the data doesn’t show much change.

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon through June 2017

Data provided by Crimson Hexagon through June 2017

The bolded cities represent those that had a change in blackout policy. The share did not shift to those cities nor were the volume of discussions materially higher, just like the rest of the data. What’s odd is that places like Chicago have had the biggest share shift. 

This data tells a story in stark contrast to impact the shift to ESPN+ has had on me. The league interest is growing in terms of searches and general interest, while the anger regarding blackouts has generally waned. Even city by city the stories don’t highlight spikes in discontent.

When I consider I am just one of approximately five percent of MLS LIVE subscriber fans that could be having a materially worse experience, I realize that we all have fallen on the wrong side of a corporate algorithm at some point. This just happens to be our turn. The corporate world is fighting cord cutters because there is so much value wrapped up in the cable industry they are fighting to keep. Our minority would have to be pretty vocal to make a blip of a change to the front office. It could also be the case that a decent portion of MLS LIVE fans didn’t migrate to the new ESPN+ app and have lost interest in out-of-market games. That could easily dwarf the increase in anger from the 5 percent. That data would be interesting to see.

What I do know is that cord cutters are growing and if a new young cord cutting fan wants to check out MLS they might want to start with their local team. They will be blacked out in many cases and it's unlikely they would then seek out-of-market games. The league is risking a good demographic of young fans that may never go through the hoops to watch their product. It's something the league should be very worried about.

So what did I do? I bought a $27 digital TV antenna, so that when I’m at home I can watch the Union games the old fashioned way. To pay back the $27 I canceled my ESPN+ subscription for the remainder of the season. I’ll reconsider next March. In the meantime I’ve stopped watching out-of-market games, which is a shame. But then again MLS had me not watching factored into their spreadsheet, so I guess I should help their analyst look smart. I hope their bet turns out alright for them.