The Union are the only one of the Philadelphia region’s pro and college sports teams that doesn’t offer online streaming of its games to local fans.
It’s bad enough for any team to be in that situation. But for a team that’s a low priority among sports-crazed fans in the nation’s fourth-largest media market, it’s a big problem. And this is the second straight season in which the Union haven’t had a deal.
The team’s TV deal puts most games on PHL17, including Saturday’s contest at FC Cincinnati (7:30 p.m.). 6ABC also airs a few. PHL17 isn’t streamed online by most subscription services, and 6ABC’s games are blacked out on them. And unlike the MLB, NHL and NBA streaming packages, MLS’ deal with ESPN+ for out-of-market streaming blacks out replays of Union games. On top of that, some areas that don’t get PHL17 are blacked out of ESPN+ anyway, including Bethlehem.
Locast, a non-profit operation that simulcasts over-the-air TV stations in Philadelphia and a few other cities, carries PHL17 and 6ABC by simulcasting their live TV signal, and Union games aren’t blacked out. Their website and mobile app are free, but the stream every 15 minutes unless you pay at least $5 per month, and there’s no recording function.
But at least it’s an option, as long as they aren’t sued out of business on copyright grounds (and they haven’t been yet).
Union fans have given chief business officer Tim McDermott an earful about the lack of online access to games, and for good reason.
“It’s something that is important to me [and] important to the organization,” he said. “We are diligently continuing on conversations with a handful of different companies.”
Behind the scenes, the matter starts at MLS headquarters, which controls teams’ in-market streaming rights. Teams must get the league’s consent for deals, and pay a fee.
Both McDermott and MLS vice president of media Seth Bacon refused to state what the fee is when asked by The Inquirer; they would only acknowledge that the fee exists.
A separate source who knows said the fee is $100,000 per year.
Asked if the fee is an issue for the historically spendthrift Union, McDermott said it is not.
“That’s not the issue whatsoever,” he said. “The issue is trying to find the right deal for the team and the league and the fan base.”
Three other MLS teams — Dallas, Houston and Portland — don’t have local streaming deals. The ones that do have a variety of setups.
Many teams televise games on local cable sports networks and have authenticated streaming through those channels’ platforms. Seattle, Orlando and Los Angeles FC put games on over-the-air TV stations and stream through YouTube TV’s subscription platform, which is $40 a month and includes every ESPN, NBC and Fox Sports channel, plus many others.
Some teams aren’t on local TV at all. Chicago’s games are exclusively online via ESPN+, which costs $50 a year (or $5 per month if paid monthly). That fee gets you everything on the platform, including out-of-market MLS games not on national TV, a wide range of international soccer and college sports, a selection of baseball and hockey games, and other sports.
Then there’s the newest and most controversial entrant in the field: FloSports. They have Cincinnati’s local streaming rights, and exclusive local rights to D.C. United games. Despite Wayne Rooney’s star power, D.C. chose to not put its non-national games on TV this year in exchange for a reported $13 million over four years.
FloSports also has a set of soccer rights and other sports, including Concacaf competitions and the Penn Relays. But it’s far less than ESPN+, and costs far more: $150 a year.
The company offered discounts to D.C. United fans. Season ticket holders and supporters club members can get the service for $71.88 per year; other local fans can pay $8.99 per month, adding up to $107.88.
In Cincinnati, FloSports initially didn’t offer a discount, which prompted a backlash from fans. The company made only a minor concession, offering a $99 annual rate to the first 2,000 fans to take the offer.
McDermott has considered all of that as he seeks a deal for the Union.
“There is a price point consideration that should be taken into account, but I’d also say you’ve kind of got to look at the entirety of the options that are going out to the consumer,” he said. “Meaning, what are you doing on the broadcast side as well?”
McDermott knows many Union fans would be happy to keep the current TV setup and watch streaming via ESPN+. The platform has La Salle, St. Joseph’s and Penn basketball (and Penn football) games, and this autumn will have Temple basketball and football. Why not just go there?
“We are in conversations with a host of different companies,” McDermott said. “We’ll see how it plays out.”
McDermott asked for fans’ patience. The Union’s deals with PHL17 and 6ABC expire after this year, and he said the team “would not do something short-term at the moment” to fill the gap.
“We want to do the right deal," he said. “Timing is a big piece of that. … It felt more appropriate to discuss all of this at once.”
Bacon backed McDermott’s long-term view.
“We don’t look for quick wins in this space, we look for strategic partnerships that are going to deliver for our fans,” he said. “We’re not in the business of looking for short term gains that could out-weigh long term benefits to our fans and to our global media strategy as a league. … We are not dictating terms, we are dictating how we protect the greater good of the entire league."
Asked whether the league cares about the price of a streaming package, Bacon said: “The answer is yes, but it’s one of multiple factors that has to be analyzed."
In other words, while the Union and MLS keep talking, fans can only keep waiting.