For the first time in the league’s 11 year history, Major League Soccer will receive a rights fee from ESPN, as the US’ alleged Division One of professional soccer signed an 8 renewal with the Disney-owned network. Said agreement will see 26 regular season and 3 playoff matches aired on ESPN2, with the season’s first match, the league’s All-Star Game (?) and MLS Cup Final being broadcast on ABC.

MLS’ press release has a few interesting comments from ESPN’s John Skipper (above) ;

“I’m the … latest knucklehead that thinks soccer is going to work in the United States,” he said. “Fortunately, if I’m a knucklehead, I’m a knucklehead at ESPN. If we get ESPN behind soccer in this country, it is almost impossible for me to believe that we can’t move this forward.

“A good number of the major breakthroughs in sports in the last 10 or 15 years have been through ESPN, and we’re going to turn the power of ESPN and ABC networks to MLS, to the U.S. national team and to FIFA,” he added. “So we’re thrilled about this deal.”

Skipper said the knock-on effects of ESPN’s new relationship with MLS will be more presence on ESPN’s digital media platforms, including and Mobile ESPN, as well as a likely increase in exposure on SportsCenter, the network’s flagship show. Many Thursday night MLS games will start immediately after the nightly evening sports news program.

Some critics have said in the past that ESPN has not given soccer its due, particularly on SportsCenter. Skipper said the company’s new commitment to the sport is the result of growing demand for it from U.S. TV viewers, not a shift in the corporate culture at ESPN.

“It’s not a cultural change,” he said. “It’s a change in the value of the league. We’re paying fees because it has value. There are other people willing to pay and we want soccer on our network. It’s just pretty simple math. The pressure is market pressure.”

Garber said scheduling the 2007 season, with new TV deals with ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel, HDNet and Univision and an unbalanced schedule created by the addition of a 13th team in Toronto FC, could be a tricky prospect. Still, he said the new broadcast options presented to the league trump any difficulty in sorting out next season’s match schedule.

“We’ve got a lot of different television partners now, so we’ve got a lot of different programming,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to get our schedule together … We’re going to have our hands full.”

Well, there goes the 2nd season of “Tilt”, then.

A commitment to show more MLS highlights on “SportsCenter” doesn’t seem out of whack if ESPN has some actual stake in the sport’s growth. Some actual analysis/discussion of the matches or league news might also be a novel approach, though fans and non-fans alike should be grateful that Alexi Lalas’ participation would be a huge conflict of interest.

That ESPN has agreed to telecast MLS’ Superdraft might be the most surprising part of yesterday’s announcement. In an age in which the NHL’s Amateur Draft can’t be seen on US TV and Major League Baseball’s first year player draft has only recently advanced to the audio webcast stage, this gives the MLS a smidgeon of credibility. Until Jim Rome is asked to read promo copy for the event.