MLS-US Soccer Tiff Muddles TV Talks for 100-Year-Old Tournament

The dispute between Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation over MLS’ participation in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup brought negotiations for a broadcast deal for the tournament to a standstill last month, according to parties involved in the negotiation.

MLS’ request to replace its teams in the U.S. Open Cup with teams from MLS Next Pro, its developmental league, was denied by U.S. Soccer, the sport’s national governing body.

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The parties began discussions in August to address competitive, economic, brand and scheduling issues, and there are ongoing conversations to define the league’s participation in the tournament.

Meanwhile, talks with broadcasters, including Warner Brothers, Telemundo and CBS, have rekindled, according to one source, who asked to remain anonymous as the matter is private and still ongoing. U.S. Soccer declined to comment on broadcast talks.

“MLS is committed to working with U.S. Soccer to establish a plan for the League’s participation in the 2024 tournament that addresses our goals and concerns,” MLS said in an email statement to Sportico. MLS and U.S. Soccer are in active discussions to address several objectives, the statement said, including “providing young players with more opportunities to compete in meaningful matches in a tournament environment, ensuring player health and safety, reducing fixture congestion for MLS clubs, and increased investment from U.S. Soccer in the Open Cup.”

The news arrives amid a structural power struggle within American soccer. In 2021, U.S. Soccer ended a 17-year exclusive marketing pact with MLS-owned Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and took its commercial rights in-house. This included the sale of television and other media rights for the U.S. Open Cup.

MLS negotiated its own media contract, which resulted in a 10-year, $2.5 billion streaming deal with Apple and a boom in interest thanks to Inter Miami’s signing of Lionel Messi, whose contract reportedly gives him a stake in Apple’s MLS subscription revenue.

Since U.S. Soccer took over negotiating broadcast and marketing deals, MLS is not in control of many aspects of the U.S. Open Cup, including broadcast rights, marketing and competition standards. U.S. Open Cup benefited from Messi’s presence last year, with Inter Miami making it to the final, but MLS gets little direct return from the tournament. Indeed, the semifinals and finals of the tournament were on CBS Sports Golazo network and Paramount+, a direct Apple TV competitor, and on Telemundo in Spanish. U.S. Soccer also collects a significant portion of the ticket revenue from every Open Cup game.

In addition, MLS teams have long complained about the wear and tear on players due to an increasingly crowded competition calendar. Some of that stems from U.S. Open Cup, but also from new competitions that MLS has launched, such as the Leagues Cup with Mexico’s Liga MX.

The U.S. Open Cup features about 100 professional and amateur teams from across the country competing in a single-elimination format, similar to the U.K.’s FA Cup. Started in 1914, The U.S. Open Cup is the oldest soccer competition in the United States. Teams from lower leagues, most often the United Soccer League (USL), have often knocked out MLS teams in “Cupsets,” but no lower-division team has won the tournament since 1999.

MLS has pushed professional soccer in the U.S. away from the traditional pyramid-style structure of European soccer, which has promotion and relegation, in favor of a standalone such as the NFL. While this has served to keep valuations high for MLS owners—the average team is now worth $582 million—it’s created a less fluid structure compared to global soccer.

The MLS plan has upset American fans, while also seemingly contravening the Professional League Standards set by U.S. Soccer, which mandate that all “U.S.‐based teams must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible.” If MLS were topull its top teams from the tournament, the federation could theoretically sanction MLS by stripping it of its first-division status, or alternately grant first-division status to the currently second-tier USL Championship.

The U.S. Open Cup is still crucial for lower-league teams, offering a rare chance to compete against better-funded MLS teams. It is also a boon to players on lower-division clubs who may have been overlooked, giving them exposure that has led to signings with bigger clubs. The first round of the tournament is set to kick on Thursday, March 19.

(This story has been updated in the headline and with details throughout.)

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