All the buzz of the last year that ESPN would be able to solidify its hold on football fans in the United States by acquiring Premier League rights is now moot. Fox Soccer Channel’s audacious gamble to acquire UEFA Champions League rights has been successful according to sources. FOX’s Jamie Trecker, a friend of this site and our podcast has also reported the imminent move on his website. Expect an announcement soon. This follows on the heels of FOX’s gamble to acquire the Latin American rights for the Champions League.
The loss of the Champions League leaves ESPN with MLS as its marque yearly football product in the states. The ESPN MLS package has performed poorly and has been nowhere close to meeting the network’s expectations for viewership. GOL TV recently renewed the La Liga rights in the US for three additional years taking away another potential ESPN target. Setanta just acquired the COMNEBOL (South American) World Cup qualifying rights for the US market as well.
MLS has been a poor performer for FSC as well, garnering viewership that is easily matched by morning infomercials and is almost matched by paid soccer related programming. But if ESPN is left only with MLS, perhaps more emphasis on promoting the league and the actual product rather than shouting about the importance of largely meaningless regular season games and over promotion of certain players will ensue for ESPN.
This is a massive development any way you look at it. FSC, contrary to rumors and ESPN spin is still in a strong enough financial position to challenge for major rights. With Copa Libertadoras rights and those to the CONCACAF Champions League, FSC /FOX will now hold the rights to the three continental championships of note in the US. ESPN will be left with nothing outside of MLS, the US National Team (whose rights are often determined on a match by match basis) and FIFA events. FSC is only in about 35 million US homes but I’d fully expect News Corp to work on either getting FSC on more cable systems or carrying big games on regional FSN channels throughout the country.
FOX has made a clear statement of intent. They aim to be the network of record for football in the US. GOL TV continues to carve out a nice niche itself. Now the question is, how and will the sports empire that is ESPN strike back? ESPN after overpaying for Baseball and the BCS may not be in a position to strike back, however.
- MLS Commissioner Don Garber has announced that MLS will not simply expand to Vancouver and Portland in 2011 but will add two more teams in 2012. It’s ironic that the MLS is so adverse to embracing the NASL’s legacy yet is now over expanding and diluting its on the field product. As the UEFA Champions League and European/Latin football become more accessible to American audiences the quality of play in MLS must improve to prevent the league from remaining a niche sport in most markets. Rapid expansion actually undermines the quality on the pitch, as many analysts have feared.
- Miami FC will compete in USL-1 in 2009, but beyond is any one’s guess. My discussions from SPORTEL this past week lead me to believe Traffic Sports the multi billion dollar Brazilian Football promoters who own Miami FC are much more enamoured with USL as a league than South Florida as a market. In other words, Traffic will stick with USL but it is quite possible they will re-locate their franchise or buy into a future expansion team rather than keep Miami FC alive beyond 2009.
- I like Seattle in tonight’s MLS opener. The pity is that watching tonight’s game will require missing perhaps the best weeknight of
American sports all year, the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Count me as a channel surfer tonight.