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Major League Soccer Wants a Brand New Television Deal


NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Mark Abbott has been waiting for this moment for 20 years.

At the end of 2014, the television rights for Major League Soccer, currently held by Disney's  ESPN and Comcast's  NBC Sports Network, will expire, affording Abbott, the league's president and its first employee, the opportunity to cement a deal that could catapult the 19-team MLS into territory it hasn't known since beginning play in 1996: profitability.

Major League Soccer's chance to negotiate a new television contract comes at a uniquely opportune time for a league that has sometimes struggled to forge a place in the consciousness of the U.S. sports fan. Yet a new television contract could change that dynamic by generating more upfront revenue to support teams operating in the red while providing wider exposure to boost ticket sales.

Talks for a new contract are taking place as pay-TV providers, led by Comcast and Time Warner Cable , are eager to secure sports programming. With Netflix  drawing more subscribers than Time Warner's HBO, live sporting events have become the one bloc of programming that can still sustain traditional pay-TV packages even as fees continue to climb.

"We're very optimistic about the outcome of these discussions for us as we look at our agreement post-2014," said Abbott, who came to the MLS in 1993 from the New York law firm Latham & Watkins where he worked for the league's founder, Alan I. Rothenberg. "The market right now for sports rights is robust."

The MLS' TV contract also happens to be expiring as only one other major professional and college sports league -- the National Basket Association in 2016 -- will be negotiating a broadcast rights deal over the next seven years, through 2020. And though MLS TV ratings are low (a 220,000 average on ESPN, according to Sports Business Journal), game attendance is higher than the NBA or the National Hockey League.

The sport's heightening popularity - think youth participation -- bodes well for securing a deal more than double the size of its current $30 million annual contract with ESPN and NBCSN, and in Spanish on Univision's UniMas. The 18th MLS championship game is Saturday on ESPN at 4pm New York time, pitting two small-market teams that have built lively followings, Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.

"Ratings are small but the potential for dollars is large because there isn't a lot of sport content still available," Rob Tillis, founder of Inner Circle Sports, a sports investment banking boutique, said in a phone interview. "Ultimately, the MLS's TV contact will be driven by advertising rates. Even on low ratings points, they can still get good ad rates because it's live content."

Competition among television and online media networks has also intensified, giving the MLS more potential bidders. Fox Sports 1, 21stCentury Fox 's  ambitious effort to compete with ESPN, began airing in June, entering a field already occupied by CBS  Sports, Time Warner 's  Turner Broadcasting, Comcast's NBC Sports and a variety of other specialty networks and streaming Web sites. Making matters more interesting, Google  and Apple  are considering entering the televised sports market.