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What will NBC-MLS deal mean for Canadian viewers?

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Major League Soccer is moving to NBC.

In a new three-year deal announced today, the American broadcasting giant will begin a three-year deal starting in 2012. It will broadcast 45 MLS games each season, the lion’s share going to NBC Sports Network.

“Our new partnership with the NBC Sports Group is a significant step forward for Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer,” said MLS Commissioner and Soccer United Marketing CEO Don Garber in a release issued by the league. “The NBC Sports Group is world-renowned for its award-winning coverage, superb broadcast quality and promotional expertise. We are excited to be part of NBC’s ambitious plans for soccer, and look forward to reaching a considerable audience on multiple platforms.”

ESPN has the rights to MLS Cup until 2014, but NBC does have rights to some playoff games.

The deal ensures that this season will be the last for Fox Soccer Channel — the “American” soccer station that’s home-cooked broadcasting is based in, ahem, Winnipeg.

This was an important move for MLS. The comparisons between MLS and the NHL are now clear. The NHL’s move to NBC has been a clear winner for the league. In the U.S. market, the Stanley Cup finals regularly do better than a 3 rating. It’s hard to quantify the numbers year by year, because what teams are playing have a direct impact on the ratings. A Chicago-Philly Stanley Cup was a ratings bonanza in the U.S. Boston-Vancouver? Strong, but not as good as Hawks-Flyers.

If NBC could have even half the effect on MLS that it has had on the NHL, the growth for the league would be enormous. Fox broadcasts of MLS get less than 100,000 viewers a night in the U.S. Put that in perspective, that’s less than half the population of Saskatoon.

What does it mean for Canadian fans? We don’t get ESPN in Canada and, while GolTV and TSN simulcast a few of those broadcasts, we don’t get them all. We don’t get the Fox Soccer Channel’s U.S. broadcast of Soccer Night in America.

We do get NBC. Versus will be rebranded as the NBC Sports Channel, so we’d have to see if that would fly in Canada or would be seen as unfair competition to Canadian carriers. Right now, the major carriers — Shaw, Rogers, Bell — don’t carry Versus. So, a bunch of games on NBC Sports Network isn’t going to change much for us.

Right now, the plan is for the lion’s share of MLS games to go to the new NBC Sports Channel. But, it’s up to the audience, isn’t it? When the NHL showed an upward tick in ratings for NBC, more resources went into the broadcasts. If the numbers are positive, more games would shift to the major network.

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