ESPN’s Premier League Dilemma


What a difference a year makes. Last summer ESPN was raving about its better than expected TV ratings for Euro 2008, which was one of the best produced tournaments soccer fans in the United States had ever seen (helped by the bonus of games being available in HD).

But since then, ESPN dumped its MLS Thursday and now they’ve lost the rights to the Champions League. However, within the next 45 days, we’ll also learn whether ESPN has missed out on acquiring the TV rights to the Premier League for the US market for seasons 2010-2013.

Looking back to ESPN’s success televising Euro 2008, I strongly believe that one of the keys to ESPN’s Euro 2008 success was the UEFA Champions League. The hype and excitement built around the Manchester United against Chelsea final in Russia was a perfect lead-in for the network to promote Euro 2008. Plus, we were so used to many of the same commentators such as Derek Rae, Adrian Healey, Tommy Smyth, Robbie Mustoe, Seamus Malin and others.

With ESPN not televising the Champions League for the next three years, I wouldn’t be surprised if its TV ratings for Euro 2012 would fall even if England can manage to qualify this time.

Unfortunately for ESPN, and for other TV sports networks, it all comes down to money. Soccer fans are hard to please. We want as many games televised as possible. We want it in HD. We want our favorite commentators. We want better programming around these shows. But the reality is that all of these things cost a lot of money when advertising rates are falling and companies are looking to cut costs to wade through this economic depression we’re experiencing.

The TV rights to the Premier League sold for $59 million for the last three seasons. In the bidding to close in the next 30-45 days, we can anticipate that the TV rights will go up in value but not significantly. But even then, can ESPN afford those rights and make a profit?

ESPN are not divorcing themselves from soccer, by any means, especially since they just added live TV coverage for this summer’s World Football Challenge. But if ESPN does make a lame bid for the Premier League TV rights in the United States, and Fox Soccer Channel (and Setanta) renew the rights once again, we can say that soccer will continue to be a niche sport in this country. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of being able to watch as many games as possible on Fox and/or Setanta, but it’s not going to take the sport to the mainstream the way that ESPN would.

Of course, if ESPN does mount a serious bid to spite Fox Soccer Channel for acquiring the UCL rights from them, it’s going to be a whole new ball game. ESPN would take the Premier League to the mainstream in this country and would far eclipse the TV ratings for the U.S.’s own Major League Soccer.

9 thoughts on “ESPN’s Premier League Dilemma”

  1. Myopian: I don’t buy that explanation.

    “ESPN cannot ignore the deep recession’s impact on advertising. But its subscriber revenue gives it an extraordinary cushion. ESPN charges cable and satellite operators an average of $3.65 a month per subscriber, the most in television, according to SNL Kagan, a research organization. Multiply that by 98 million subscribers, over 12 months a year, and ESPN’s financial armor adds up to $4.3 billion.”

    They’ve got the money. There’s something else at work here.

  2. As an American who’s a die-hard Liverpool/ England football fan, I have been very disappointed in FSC’s lack of coverage of many Liverpool games over the past few seasons. Instead, they would rather show many under-rated team matches (Stoke v Newcastle anyone?) or rather, teams who are way down the Prem League ranks.

    I would much prefer to watch them on Setanta, but we don’t have satellite and I don’t feel it would be worth it to get it for only one channel. Also, I’m not willing to subscribe to Setanta broadband for $15 a month when I can get it for free on various live TV streaming sites on the Internet.

    If it wasn’t for these sites, I wouldn’t be able to watch many games (including european teams) and rugby.

    I have given up on ESPN’s lousy coverage of Int’l games (other than Euro 08 which I watched all of) and feel that if they would rather show other ‘less important’ sports rather than football, then I will take my business elsewhere.

    I also wish FSC would show more England-focused matches or features, as I’m not interested in Barca TV or the Italian Football league. But I guess that’s just me…picky as always!

  3. I find it interesting that the bottom ticker on ESPN channels have lately shown a lot of soccer scores from Europe. It tends to be mostly CL team scores in EPL, etc but I have wondered why they would dedicate space to something they care little about. other that the occasional Top 10 Plays highlight like Eduardo’s sublime side-foot slice goal. Maybe they plan on picking up a slice of EPL games? I would like to see a few HD games on ESPN most weekends. If they picked up the Setanta piece I could save $15/month on my cable bill. FSC tends to be on the higher priced bundles so its loss of EPL could save me even more money.

  4. If any of you would see me comments to the similar posts on MLS Talk I would like to thank the Gaffer for mentioning ESPN’s coverage of the World Football Challenge this summer. Fact is when you run down the coverage that ESPN still has and if it lands the Prem it will be the major soccer channel in the US. Most likely you could not may for both the Prem and CL. So if the Prem lands on ESPN who is the winner and still champ?

    ESPN haters lets not talk too soon!

  5. Espn has little respect for football in my opinion. If they want to show their adherence to the cause they need a dedicated channel. For them football is just a droop in the bucket of sports. I don’t care if anyone ever catches on to football. I want proper coverage and repeats of big matches.

  6. ESPN has treated football/soccer like a bastard child. God riddance. I am happy with the FSC/Setanta coverage of the Premier League as it stands and I hope ESPN fails in its bid to secure the league’s rights in the US.
    Let ESPN focus on its college basketball and college football.

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