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What’s Next for ESPN’s Soccer Strategy?

espn logo Whats Next for ESPNs Soccer Strategy?

ESPN’s track record of trying to acquire soccer TV rights during the first quarter of 2009 has been abysmal.

First, ESPN pulled out of the bidding at the last minute for the European TV rights to the Bundesliga. In February, ESPN lost the Premier League TV rights in the UK to Sky Sports and Setanta. Then this month alone, ESPN suffered the double whammy of losing the Champions League TV rights in the United States and Central and South America to Fox Sports.

Next up for ESPN is the U.S. rights to the Premier League, due to be finalized in April, 2009. Will ESPN make it zero for five in 2009, or are they lying in wait to capture the big kahuna?

Really, no one really knows how serious ESPN is about the TV rights to the Premier League. They’ll face stiff competition from Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports who will both be reluctant to let go of the Premier League. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to money and if ESPN can bid more, then the Premier League crown will be theirs.

If so, ESPN’s coverage would begin immediately after the 2010 World Cup (also aired on ESPN), and the Premier League would be the perfect opportunity to dovetail its huge ratings into a new season of Premier League soccer.

But rumors of budget cuts at ESPN may curtail the Disney-owned company from bidding an excessive amount of money for the league.

One additional wrinkle to the deal is that ESPN may allow distributors to swap ESPN Classic for ESPN U, it’s college network.

According to SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN execs are “set to allow cable and satellite distributors to swap” ESPN Classic for ESPNU, which they “hope presents a newer, hipper alternative to Classic’s staid, dated programming,” according to John Ourand. The proposal would allow operators “to move ESPN Classic to a sports tier, where it would be ESPN’s first channel to reside on the traditionally low-penetrated mantle.” The net also is “looking for added distribution” for both ESPN Deportes and ESPN360 as part of the offer. ESPN Classic currently is in “more than 63 million homes, typically on analog and digital basic tiers,” while ESPNU is in “about 25 million homes, mainly on digital basic tiers, and ESPN Deportes is in fewer than 5 million homes.” ESPN Classic was “once a viewer favorite for its extensive library and Emmy-winning documentaries,” but it has “seen its viewer numbers drop sharply in the last three years.” The channel in ’08 averaged 74,000 viewers in primetime, down 31% from 107,000 viewers in ’07. Ourand writes a deal “clearly would mostly help ESPNU, which is battling another collegiate sports channel, CBS College Sports Network, for carriage deals on the nation’s cable and satellite systems.” ESPN execs have “spent the last several weeks pitching this plan to cable operators,” but talks are “expected to heat up this week” at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s annual Cable Show in DC.

So, if ESPN Classic is going to become less of a priority for ESPN, what does that say about the network’s soccer strategy where many of the overflow games and soccer repeats are shown on ESPN Classic? The news doesn’t bode well.

What’s your opinion about ESPN’s recent failed attempts to get more soccer programming, and what the chances are of the network winning the Premier League bid in April? Click the comments link below and share your opinion.


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About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
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