News broke out on Friday that the Barclays Premier League had rejected the latest bid from Fox/ESPN for the rights to broadcast its games in the United States. The move is a surprise given the long partnership that Fox (a NewsCorp organization and cousin to England’s BSkyB) has had with the Premier League. Before there was a Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports World would show Premier League games and highlights in the US while a $400 PPV rights package for the league was the only way to catch it live.
Reports on the Sports Business Daily state that NBC/Universal is bidding approximately $83 million dollars per year for the US broadcasting rights of the Premier League for the next three seasons – a hefty jump from the $23 million per year that Fox/ESPN were paying in the last contract. This has put them in pole position to be the new US home for the Premier League though there is still the potential that the new beIN Sports Network – which wrested the rights to La Liga from GolTV and the Serie A and Ligue 1 rights from Fox – could equal or top NBC’s bid. Read their story here.
For Fox and its two soccer-specific channels – Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus – the loss could prove massive. The Premier League is the backbone of their programming and the cornerstone of their networks. While Fox still retains the US broadcast rights to the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, the English FA Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League and recently outbid ESPN for the US rights to both the Men’s and Women’s FIFA World Cups, these are tournaments. They occur in either short windows of time – a month for World Cups – or happen sporadically during the soccer calendar. This move will leave Fox with the Scottish Premier League as the biggest soccer league on their schedule. (I guess we ought to get ready for lots of hype over Falkirk v Hibernian).
What does this mean for the average soccer fan in the States? On the surface, not much appears to change. Instead of going to one channel for their Premier League fix, they’ll go to another one. NBC is hoping to land the rights to the Premier League to bolster their broadcast options for the NBC Sports Network – which is currently suffering from a lack of NHL – as well as increase that channel’s audience. We know from their Olympic broadcasts that NBC knows how to sell international sports in the US, even if the selling point has traditionally been human-interest stories. I can’t imagine having Bob Costas selling us on John Terry: humanitarian.
Looking deeper though, it does create some questions over how the world’s #1 sport will be featured in the US. Fox has been instrumental in pushing the sport in general and the Premier League in particular to American audiences. While the amount of soccer they still have is strong, it brings up a few questions. Can they support two soccer networks without their marquee competition? Will tournaments and other international sports like rugby, cricket and Aussie rules football be sufficient to justify the $14.95 per month cost for Fox Soccer Plus to their audience? With no other leagues to bid on until 2014 at the earliest (for the Bundesliga’s US rights, which GolTV still retains) what do they do? And remember, given the commitments they’ve taken in winning the World Cup’s rights, they can’t just trim things either.
Meanwhile with MLS also on NBC Sports and the US Men’s National Team on beIN Sports, it means that the bulk of USA’s soccer future is now in the hand of two relatively-new networks with no track record. That is a double-edged sword. On one side, they have every incentive to push soccer in the US – beIN Sports because it’s all they show, NBC Sports because of the financial commitment they’ve made to grow their network. On the other, the landscape is littered with the remains of those that have tried to push soccer in America and failed (see: Setanta). Can they find the right balance between placating the knowledgeable supporter and enticing the neophytes? Are they the right partners to help grow the sport?
Soccer has often faced a rocky and difficult road in the US. That the rights to the biggest soccer league in the world go for such exorbitant fees is a sign of the voracious appetite that exists for the beautiful game on these shores. At the same time, the key must be for NBC Sports or beIN Sports or whoever is carrying the load of bringing the games to ensure that it isn’t just feeding the need for the sport. It must also act as a partner to continue the growth and development of the sport in the USA. If this new deal with NBC leads to that, then it’s good for the game and good for us all.