You may not have heard, but American TV networks are currently bidding over the rights to broadcast the English Premier League from 2013-14 through 2015-16. Yes, that includes next season. The Premier League is the most watched European league in the US and probably (need to check) the second-most popular foreign soccer league in the US, behind the Mexican top division.
ESPN/Fox (the incumbents): ESPN and Fox have teamed up to continue broadcasting the PL across all the different platforms that they already are including ESPN, Fox, ESPN2, FSC, FSC+, Watch ESPN and FoxSoccer2Go.
- Why they will win – Incumbency always helps and besides that, the arrival of EPL matches on ESPN has kicked the league’s national relevancy to previously unimagined levels. In addition, the Premier League would not be where it is today without the parallel emergence of Murdoch-owned Sky Sports in the UK and league officials have been loyal to him and his networks (in this case Fox/FSC) since then.
- Why they won’t win – Because as companies with eye on the bottom line rather than corporate or even national prestige, they probably won’t bid the most money.
- What would a win mean for American soccer fans? – Honestly, nothing but good things (and Eric Wynalda). These matches would be readily available to American fans with powerful promotion and marketing engines behind them. It would be a case of onwards and upwards, in my opinion.
NBC Universal: Not too much is known about this bid except that it would be more programming for NBC Sports Network and that, according to SBJ, NBC-U’s bid was “not as strong as some were expecting.” Also, you can safely assume they would attempt to leverage its mobile platform (currently really only being used by Notre Dame and previously by the Olympics) to allow for viewers to watch matches live on mobiles, tablets, etc.
- Why they will win – Well, it doesn’t look like it will. If it did win, I suppose it would be based on a combination of cash, proven ability to produce quality sports broadcasts including of major events like the Olympics, and some kind of commitment to air some matches on NBC.
- Why they won’t win – It sounds like NBC low-balled the EPL, so that’s reason no. 1. The other reason is that, thanks to NBC’s recent acquisition of the rights to Formula 1, NBC-S doesn’t have nearly as many empty weekend morning timeslots.
- What would a win mean for American soccer fans? – I think it would mean that, at least for the matches on NBC-S, American fans would be well-served. Would NBC-S show matches on other related networks like CNBC or MSNBC during times when NBC-S either has F1 or another EPL match or would they sublicense it to another provider? That we don’t know.
beIN SPORT: Not much is known about the specifics of the bid but as its recent acquisitions of Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, and CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers show, it has the financial resources and ambition to outbid any and all competitors.
- Why they will win – Straight cash, homie. That’s how it acquired its other programming and there’s little to believe the network isn’t prepared to do it again. For the reasons I’ll outline in the next bullet, there’s a lot of reasons why the EPL shouldn’t select the Qatari-owned network, but you need to remember just how much cash these clubs blow through on wages and transfer fees. I think if asked to choose between more cash and more exposure, most (not all) of them will choose cash.
- Why they won’t win – Because, as EPLTalk put it aptly, it’ll be a huge dent in the otherwise remarkable growth of Premier League soccer in this country. The limited carriage of this network will, in a way we haven’t seen in 10 years, force fans back into the bars to watch Premier League matches and single-handedly shove the EPL out of the mainstream and back into the shadowy niche. If the EPL and its owners can look even slightly long-term, they’ll see the damage that a deal with beIN SPORT could do and look elsewhere. In addition, there’s the question of how beIN SPORT could fit all these new EPL matches around its exist crowded schedule of live matches.
- What would a win mean for American soccer fans? – At least for the time it takes for be IN SPORT to get carriage at levels resembling FSC, it’ll be a disaster for fans. It will hurt the exposure of the sport at all levels. It’ll be the most dramatic case of a sport grabbing the money in lieu of exposure since boxing went almost entirely PPV in the 1980s. We all know how that worked out.
IMG: This bid is similar to those Soccer United Marketing (SUM) made for the World Cup rights back in the 2000’s. IMG is solely looking to redistribute them to providers including many of those you see on this rundown.
- Why they will win – IMG knows sports marketing better than almost anyone. So they have that going for them, I guess.
- Why they won’t win – Unless they come in with a bid massively above those of the media providers themselves, I don’t know what the upside is for the EPL to choose them.
- What would a win mean for American soccer fans? – Totally unknown at this point because we don’t know who would actually be televising the matches.
Discovery Networks: Discovery’s family of networks including Velocity and more intriguingly, BBC America, were rumored to be interested in tendering a bid, but according to SBJ’s John Ourand, it has declined to do so.
So after all that, who do I think will be your home for the Premier League next season?
I think (for many of you, at least) it’ll be your local soccer-friendly sports bar watching beIN SPORT.
The Qataris behind the network will be prepared to spend above and beyond what it takes to be profitable in order to a) increase carriage of their network and b) increase the prestige of parent company Al Jazzera and the country of Qatar. Everybody else bidding is going to have a bottom line that must be obeyed. If required, I could see beIN SPORT sublicensing some of its matches to another, more easily viewed, outlet, but certainly none of the good ones. After all, those good matches are the leverage the network requires to get more cable companies to pick up the network.
Yes, we’ve seen leagues choose exposure over cash in TV rights bid-offs before, most recently with MLS choosing NBC over FSC for its cable package. But MLS needs exposure more than it needs cash, especially when you account for the league’s salary cap and cost certainty. In contrast, thanks to ever rising salaries and transfer fees, EPL clubs need cash and need it constantly if they are to avoid relegation, qualify for Europe or simply to mollify supporters with expensive attempts at “showing ambition.” That’s why I think we’re heading towards a disappointing outcome for American soccer fans.
As EPLTalk said, it’ll be a disaster for fans and for the greater sport of soccer in this country. In addition, the loss of EPL matches would almost certainly spell the end of FSC and probably end up, like Speed Channel, turning into a part of Fox’s new mainstream ESPN competitor. While I’m sure Fox would find a place for its existing coverage of the Champions League and future coverage of men’s and women’s World Cups, much of the other live coverage FSC airs including US men’s, women’s, and youth national teams as well as coverage of CONCACAF Champions League, Gold Cup, Aussie A-League, Scottish Premier League, and NCAA matches would likely have to find new homes.
So that’s my opinion based just on what I have read and on what I have seen in prior bidding situations. It’s probably pretty clear I support Fox and ESPN here, though anything that keeps the vast majority of matches off beIN SPORT will be a victory for American soccer fans.