A live-streaming deal announced Tuesday between the Sounders and Amazon Prime Video marks a significant step for both with bigger potential down the road within a league that’s long struggled to draw television viewers.
The multi-year deal through 2022 is only the second by Amazon with a professional sports team and will see all regionally-televised Sounders games made available statewide to Amazon Prime subscribers online starting with an Aug. 26 road matchup against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And the deal is timed to expire exactly when Major League Soccer’s national television rights come up for renewal, perhaps setting the stage for Amazon to make an even bigger play if all goes well.
Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer won’t speculate on anything beyond a deal he touted as five years in the making and a strong opportunity for the Rave Green to grow more fans here in Washington.
“Just the innovation that Amazon provides, the customer obsession and the amount of exposure within the state of Washington on basically every device that exists is exciting and a big deal for us,’’ Hanauer said. “We expect that we will be able to provide a platform for existing customers and bring new customers under the tent.’’
MLS regular season games on ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision typically average between 250,000 and 300,000 viewers, bolstered every four years by spinoff interest in soccer caused by the FIFA World Cup. But those numbers lag considerably behind the four biggest North American pro sports leagues, with No. 4 NHL drawing well over 400,000 viewers on NBC and NBCSN telecasts.
Reports surfaced last year that MLS had asked its teams not to agree to any local TV rights deals beyond 2022; the speculation being the league could bundle local TV into the national rights package and offer it up through a streaming service.
Where Amazon fits in that equation isn’t quite clear given its still relatively nascent foray into sports streaming. Last December, it signed a pact with the New York Yankees to stream 21 games carried this season by the team’s YES Network to Amazon Prime members in New York, Connecticut, northeast Pennsylvania and north and central New Jersey.
But soccer is a different animal than baseball; with MLS having claimed numerous internal studies show its fans trend younger and consume their programming online through laptops, tablets and smartphones rather than traditional television.
The suggestion has long been the league has a vast, untapped market of fans in coveted advertising demographics that doesn’t show up in TV ratings surveys. This Amazon deal could help uncover Sounders fans who don’t currently watch the team locally on JoeTV.
And if Amazon was to make a play for national streaming rights ahead of 2023, it could give more MLS leverage with TV networks. For instance, the league’s current national TV rights deal – with ESPN and Fox Sports paying a reported $75 million annually between them and Univision another $15 million a season for Spanish-language broadcasts — allows ESPN to stream games through its ESPN+ service.
But if Amazon was to compete for some or all of those streaming rights, ESPN might be willing to pay more on the totality of the TV package to maintain its share.
Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video at Amazon, also wouldn’t speculate on whether there’s more planned by the company in MLS beyond this deal.
“We don’t comment on what we’re looking at and what we’re doing in the future,’’ Donoghue said. “But I will tell you that we learn from everything we do. And so, we’re particularly pleased to have our first partnership with a soccer team – a football team as they call it in Europe. So, we’re excited to learn and we’re certain fans will be delighted.”
Amazon until recently has focused much of its sports streaming efforts outside the U.S., investing in overseas tennis and soccer streaming rights for the U.S. Open, the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. But the Yankees deal, along with a recently-renewed NFL Thursday Night Football streaming package, are a nod to the fact an estimated 118 million of Amazon Prime’s 150 million global customers live in this country.
Donoghue cited similarities between the Yankees and Sounders in that both are “top in class’’ franchises with huge fan bases, a track record of on-field success and off-field innovation. She said Amazon wasn’t necessarily targeting younger viewers in going after the Sounders rights, given Amazon Prime’s viewership covers multiple demographics it needs to provide content and value for.
“We really do look at customers and at opportunities,’’ she said. “Anything that can bring value to our customers and delight our customers, we’re going to have a look at it.’’
Hanauer said the league always is striving to make the on-field product more palatable to all fans, regardless of age. He said the streaming deal should benefit existing viewers by giving them more options to see the games when away from their TV.
And while Hanauer wouldn’t guess how many new Sounders viewers might be lured by the streaming, he agreed there’s potentially a much bigger local audience out there.
“Our TV ratings are 2.0’s,’’ he said of the percentage of audience share the team generally draws for local game broadcasts. “The Seahawks do what – 30’s? There is a wide gap between 2.0 and 30. I don’t think any of us presume we’re the NFL, but we aspire to be a more ubiquitous sports league and have the kind of local relevance that drives big viewer share.
“So, that’s the gap, potentially.’’