Soccer fans wanting to watch D.C. United this season will not find matches on WJLA 24/7 News, where they were shown for three years. The games won’t appear on NBC Sports Washington — the team’s platform for much of its first 20 seasons — or Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.
In fact, except for select nationally televised matches, viewers will not find Wayne Rooney and United on any standard cable or satellite channels.
That’s because, like millions of Americans, United is cutting the cord and enlisting a pay streaming service for video needs. The MLS franchise said it has signed a multiyear contract with subscription-based FloSports to carry 21 of 34 regular season matches. The remainder will appear on the league’s national TV platforms (Fox Sports, ESPN or UniMas).
The agreement, United officials said, is for up to four years.
The Austin-based media company will pay United an undisclosed rights fee and, in addition to game action, provide a platform for supplemental programming, such as weekly shows starring Rooney, offseason specials and comprehensive pregame and postgame shows.
United programming will be available to subscribers on smartphones, smart TVs, tablets and laptops — mobile access that club officials said was a high priority for fans they surveyed.
“The decision was very much based on what our options were and what was going to be best for our fans to really connect with the team,” said Sam Porter, United’s senior vice president for business and legal affairs. “What FloSports is going to offer is more in-depth coverage and story lines around the team on a year-round basis.
“When you look at all the cord-cutting that is going on, it’s really not as radical as it would have been a couple of years ago.”
United’s contract with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns WJLA 24/7 News and WJLA-7, expired after last season. The team did not exercise an option to continue the relationship this year.
A subscription to FloSports — which includes access to 25 sports, including auto racing, mixed martial arts, wrestling and Big Ten competitions — costs $150 annually or $30 per month. But United plans to offer the same fully inclusive packages at reduced rates. The price has not been finalized, Porter said.
United is the company’s first soccer property as part of a dedicated soccer outlet launching this week called FloFC.
All United matches will be shown in high definition and offer the choice of English or Spanish commentary. Longtime play-by-play announcer Dave Johnson and analyst Devon McTavish are expected to return. The club plans to hire a Spanish announcer.
MLS on Monday announced the full schedule, which, for United, will include 13 matches on national TV, including the March 3 opener against defending champion Atlanta on ESPN. That number could grow late in the season, when the national TV partners have programming flexibility.
United is bulking up its video production staff, Porter said, and will welcome FloSports employees into the operation.
FloSports executive Mike Levy said Porter and United co-owner Jason Levien “shared their vision. They are trying to stay ahead of technology and trends.”
He added that, “philosophically, we don’t believe just putting live games up is the best way to drive engagement. There’s too much else to watch. We believe you have to create context. We charge a premium because we promise to build context. The fans are going to know why they are watching. We know it’s a little bit of a premium — we are unapologetic about it because the goal is to offer the best value for that specific fan.”
United is not the first MLS organization to take the digital route. Last year, in its inaugural season, Los Angeles FC bypassed local TV stations to become the first U.S. pro sports team to align with a streaming service: YouTube TV.
Fans needed an account ($40 per month for all YouTube TV channels) to watch the LAFC matches in English. Only residents in the Los Angeles area were able to access LAFC programming. Fans outside the L.A. area wanting to watch LAFC games from the local production needed to access the league’s digital package on ESPN+, another pay service. (YouTube TV is also LAFC’s jersey sponsor.)
Because LAFC was introducing itself to the Southern California soccer community, the organization also teamed with a local Spanish outlet to show matches on a traditional channel. United will not offer such an option.
Orlando City and the Seattle Sounders also had deals with YouTube TV but for the purpose of allowing matches shown on standard regional TV to also be available on the streaming service. In other words, cord-cutters could watch those games via YouTube TV.
The Chicago Fire last year abandoned traditional local TV for ESPN+, which costs $5 per month for a wide variety of programming.
“We might not have a fan base that is as large as the Redskins’ right now, but the people who are into it are really into it,” Porter said. “We’re going to be able to be more flexible and figure out what people want. This is us trying to be as attentive to our fan base as possible. If you’re into D.C. United, this is something you are going to enjoy.”