Earlier this morning, our friend The Gaffer lamented that ESPN’s loss of the UEFA Champions League TV rights would be bad for soccer in America. After all, ESPN remains the primary vehicle for sporting culture in this country, and if the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” suddenly doesn’t care enough to keep this planet’s biggest club football competition on its networks, then what hope does soccer have of becoming more than a niche sport here?
You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe the final chapter has been written in this story just yet. ESPN has not lost interest in soccer, nor has it forgotten the ratings success and critical praise it garnered from EURO 2008. What ESPN might be doing, though, is getting ready to acquire the broadcast rights to the Champions League, the Premier League, the Europa League and much, much more, by making only one move — buying out Setanta Sports.
This is not a new rumor, to be sure, but we should examine ESPN’s recent manuevers to get a better understanding of the bigger picture. First, let’s establish this: the notion that ESPN could not afford the rights to the Champions League because of the sagging economy is complete and utter bollocks…
According to this New York Times article by Richard Sandomir, ESPN earns a whopping $4.3 billion from cable and satellite subscribers every year. This not only insulates ESPN from economic hardship, but it gives the WWL a huge war chest that it can use to outbid any other network for any sports property it wants to air. ESPN recently outbid Fox for the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series by more than $100 million. If ESPN wanted to take the Olympics from NBC or the NCAA Basketball Championship from CBS, it could. No problem.
Setanta Sports, meanwhile, is not swimming in these Olympic-sized pools of cash. Last month, the Telegraph reported that Setanta was busy renegotiating all of its TV deals because it was struggling to make payments. This cash-poor position makes Setanta a prime takeover target for a monolith like ESPN.
Buying Setanta Sports also gives the WWL a huge inventory of broadcast rights — including the Champions League and the Premier League — which would have been far more expensive if bought separately. Plus, ESPN would get the infrastructure it needs to broadcast the games and, perhaps more importantly, all that on-air talent — Jon Champion, Paul Dempsey, Pat Dolan, James Richardson, and many, many more. This would be a huge boost for the WWL’s football coverage in the USA, and it would help it establish a stronger foothold overseas.
But where would ESPN put all these games, you ask? That’s where this article from Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal comes in:
Executives in Bristol are set to allow cable and satellite distributors to swap ESPN’s classic sports channel for its college network, ESPNU, which they hope presents a newer, hipper alternative to Classic’s staid, dated programming…
An interesting wrinkle to ESPN’s 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.
On the surface, this is a smart move for the WWL, as ESPN Classic’s ratings have dwindled in recent years, and having its own college sports network on standard cable and satellite tiers would allow it to compete with similar offerings from CBS and the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, about a year ago, Ives Galarcep let slip that ESPN was thinking of converting Classic into an international sports channel, with the Premier League as its top draw. (On a side note, I got Ives into a little bit of trouble with ESPN after I quoted his blog for that FanHouse piece, which proved to me that there was some truth to that rumor. I do hope he’s forgiven me since then.)
By purchasing Setanta, ESPN could have that international channel right away and, with minimal conversion, drop it into the spot currently occupied by Classic, thus putting it on the same sports tiers where Fox Soccer Channel and GOLTV currently reside.
The end result would give soccer fans all the matches they can handle on one tier, without having to shell out the extra $15 a month for Setanta. It would also bring the Champions League back to ESPN, who could very easily put those games back on ESPN2 to grab those casual viewers — complete with bumpers encouraging everyone to contact their cable and satellite companies right now to get the all-new ESPN International for even more soccer action.
So don’t lament the loss of the beautiful game on ESPN just yet. The WWL may have lost the Champions League final, but it hasn’t given up on soccer. It’s just setting us up for the perfect through ball.