The next MLS television deal can help grow the Nashville SC fanbase across Tennessee

“There’s gold in them thar hills.”

While the phrase originates from descriptions of untapped gold reserves in the hills of north Georgia, it can be metaphorically applied today to the untapped reserves of potential fans of Nashville SC and the Boys in Gold across the hills of East Tennessee…and the plains of West Tennessee. To strike it rich, Nashville must first eliminate the barriers to entry and then capitalize on the opportunity to create legions of fans across Tennessee. 

Right now, Nashville SC struggles with a broadcasting problem. The club’s local broadcast deal with MyTV30 covers the Nashville metropolitan area. Each match is broadcast over the air to anyone who can pick up the signal or has the channel as part of a cable television package. To the club and MyTV30’s credit, they made a streaming option available on the club’s website to those within the Midstate and southern Kentucky area. The listed coverage area is highlighted below.

When I look at this map, I do not see the counties painted gold. I see the untapped counties in white. These are the counties that are treated as out-of-market areas for Nashville SC. Maybe it is my own bias. Afterall, I am a proud Knoxvillian. But I have seen the tremendous support for the Titans and the ever-growing base of Predators fans throughout the years.

I cannot help but wonder how many more potential supporters for Nashville soccer exist in places like Knoxville and Memphis. The club will always have to fight a battle for hearts and minds in Chattanooga as the city sits closer geographically to Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium than Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. But there are still those in Chattanooga that may wish to support a club in their home state rather than one in Georgia.

From Bristol to Memphis, there are loads of Tennesseans without regular access to home feeds of Nashville SC broadcasts. Outside of home territories, those wishing to watch MLS matches can access a feed through ESPN+, the network’s $6.99 per month streaming service.

This is not a bad option. However, ESPN+ limits viewers to only the feed of the home team. That means for every Nashville away match, fans outside the Midstate have no option but to listen to the away broadcast team, who often exclusively talk about the other team, have never seen a foul called on Nashville that they do not like, and still think of Nashville as the 2020 plucky park-the-bus team with an inability and unwillingness to score.

Further complicating the streaming situation is the various dead zones and other blackout-related issues. The coverage map indicated by Nashville SC’s website does not always hold up as advertised

While the Univision/TUDN /Twitter broadcast saves us this weekend, matches against Atlanta United ordinarily bring out the greatest indignity. Atlanta’s regional broadcaster, Bally Sports South, is carried throughout the entire southeast thanks to the wide appeal of Atlanta Braves baseball. Nashville SC supporters across East and West Tennessee must instead tune in through Bally Sports South, a network not carried by Sling, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, or other internet-based television services, as the regular ESPN+ feed is blacked out in the Bally Sports South viewing area. This leaves cord cutters without a viable option to watch these matches without resorting to illegal streams, password sharing, or convincing a random bar to turn on the match. A casual fan just recently gaining interest in the club will not seek out these desperate measures.

Hope on the horizon

There is reason for hope that the landscape is about to change that will alter how everyone consumes MLS action.

MLS is reaching closer to the end stage of a years-long television rights negotiations. The current domestic broadcast deal will expire at the end of the 2022 season. For the past few years, the league’s attention has been keenly focused on maximizing the next media rights agreement to increase revenue and capture on the potential growth of soccer while the U.S. and Canada jointly host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico. 

MLS inked its current US-broadcasting media rights deal in 2015. The agreement nets the league roughly $90 million per season. This broadcast agreement only covered nationally televised matches.

Since the beginning of the league, individual teams were left to secure their own regional television deals to broadcast all its other matches. The Los Angeles Galaxy lead the pack with a ten-year agreement that earns $5.5 million in additional revenue. However, there are still some MLS clubs that do not receive rights fees for their local broadcast deal.

In 2019, MLS officials instructed all clubs to not extend their local broadcasting deals beyond the 2022 season. The consensus has been that MLS would scrap the regional television model and package its entire inventory of non-nationally televised matches for streaming services to bid on. 

This week, Jaime Ojeda reported that the non-nationally televised steaming inventory would be broadcast without market blackouts – long a point of contention for fans across the league.

This development helps Nashville SC’s efforts to build a statewide fanbase. No more dead zones. No more Bally Sports South blackouts. No more listening to homer broadcasters extolling the virtue of Nashville’s opponents. The possibility of choosing one’s feed or being provided nationally produced broadcasts sounds infinitely better than the current system. It will help prevent the alienation of MLS fans who do not fit neatly within the current cable-based, regional sports television model.

The new television deal will open doors, but it’s on clubs to capitalize

With the new MLS broadcasting deal, a previous barrier to entry will be eliminated. A standardized streaming partner will open the door for Nashville SC to reach additional eyeballs in East and West Tennessee.  But it is up to the club to make the effort necessary to show that these secondary markets matter – and they should.

The metropolitan areas of Tennessee’s second through fifth largest cities hold roughly three million people – Memphis (1,337,000); Knoxville (879,000); Chattanooga (562,000); and Kingsport-Bristol (307,000). While most fans in these cities likely will not drive large revenue increases, they will nevertheless purchase apparel, increase television eyeballs, and make occasional road trips to the new Fairgrounds stadium. In short, they will help grow the brand.

There are soccer fans in these cities. Chattanooga has a decorated history of supporting its local clubs, and has professional teams competing in USL League One and NISA. Memphis 901 FC entered the USL Championship in 2019 with an average attendance of over 6,000 people. This past week, One Knoxville SC, a new USL League 2 team, unveiled its crest to a crowd of around 200 people.

If Nashville SC wants to tap into the gold mines of soccer fans scattered across the state, it will need to do more than rely upon the league to eliminate the match streaming barriers. Little efforts in these cities can go a long way to showing that they matter. 

An offseason youth clinic featuring a few Nashville SC players can help create life-long admirers. Establishing official pub partners in each major city can create a home base for adult fans to watch matches without fear that the bar will instead put on a competing college football game. Even a single billboard can help expose commuters to the idea that Tennessee has a Major League Soccer team of its own. 

Nashville’s marketing team probably holds much better and more cost-effective ideas in their pinky finger than I have in my entire body. But my point is that there should be visible effort to mine the entire state for unearthed pockets of gold that can support the club and help it reach new heights. The new television deal will help. But it is up to the club to facilitate that growth.

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