This week, it was revealed by John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal that Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva travelled to New York for a meeting with MLS commissioner Don Garber in which he offered the ludicrous sum of US$4 billion for the global media rights to MLS for ten years from 2023 – an offer that would have quadrupled the league’s media rights fees some six years before those rights were even due to go to market.
Crucially, Silva’s bold proposal was made on the proviso that MLS would agree to introduce a system of promotion and relegation at some point in future, a caveat that rendered the offer a non-starter for a league historically averse to the idea, even if the money on the table would prove transformative for its teams.
“As commissioner Garber stated in his letter to Mr Silva, we are not in a position, nor are we interested in engaging with Mr Silva on his proposal,” said Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice president of communications, in a statement.
So what is Silva trying to achieve?
Was it simply grandstanding – a way to keep the topic of promotion/relegation in the public forum whilst rousing the interest of team owners throughout the North American soccer pyramid? After all, Silva must have known MLS couldn’t possibly accept his proposal.
As many observers have noted, MLS is contractually prohibited, under the terms of its current domestic TV deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision, from discussing a new media rights agreement until at least 2021. Even then, each of the incumbent broadcasters will have exclusive negotiating windows and renewal options to exercise before their contracts expire in 2022.
Or, was Silva’s mega-bucks media rights offer about more than just opening up the market and giving lower league clubs like Miami FC a chance to reach the top level?
While observers speculate about his possible motives, it is worth remembering that Silva has history when it comes to stepping on the toes of the establishment. He has, for example, continued to raise interest in establishing the Americas Champions League (ACL), a proposed knockout competition for 32 clubs from across North, South and Central America that is slated to launch in 2019.
Though the competition has yet to materialise into anything tangible, Silva has insisted such an unprecedented pan-American property would satisfy broadcaster appetite for a competition that marries the commercial might of the north with the fabled team brands of the south. He has set what he calls a “conservative” target of US$500 million annual revenues for the competition, generated largely through sponsorship and media rights sales handled by MP & Silva.
On paper, the competition looks a tantalising prospect for soccer fans as well as a commercial money-spinner, but it is also logistically unsound and dogged by the politics of a region whose soccer leadership is still realigning in the wake of a power vacuum that ensued after the FIFA corruption scandal of 2015. If the ACL project is to get off the ground and flourish, then, Silva will need high-level support from the close-knit establishment he is seeking to woo.
When it comes to governing and growing soccer in North America, the ultimate power is wielded by Concacaf, the chief decision-making authority in North and Central America and the Caribbean that is under the auspices of Canadian Victor Montagliani. Concacaf is closely followed in the pecking order by MLS and US Soccer, which is led by Montagliani’s long-time friend Sunil Gulati, the well-connected Fifa vice president who is currently spearheading a three-way bid for the 2026 Fifa World Cup.
That trio of Concacaf, MLS and US Soccer is propped up, at least financially, by Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the increasingly influential media and marketing arm of MLS that now distributes commercial rights to all three organisations. Crucially, SUM is, by definition, a direct competitor of MP & Silva, which previously distributed international media rights on behalf of MLS and US Soccer but was replaced in the role by IMG, a longstanding partner of SUM, in October 2014, just months before Silva launched Miami FC and embarked on his ACL project.
Could it be, then, that Silva’s offer to MLS is also an attempt to wrest back the influence – as well as the rights – MP & Silva lost three years ago? If nothing else, injecting an eye-popping US$4 billion into the US game would surely increase the agency’s chances of securing support within Concacaf for the ACL, which has yet to receive any kind of official seal of approval.