Why ESPN Losing Champions League TV Rights Is Not a Good Thing

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It’s a glorious time of the year for fans of English football. The race in the Premier League is heating up and we’ve seen some amazing matches during the past few weeks showing why the league can be, at times, miles ahead of its competitors. Then we had this week’s Champions League quarter-final matches which were much more exciting than the typical first leg ties are. Teams are usually very cagey, unwilling to go forward too much in case they would be hit on the counter-attack.

Except this week, we didn’t see that in the Champions League. Last night’s Liverpool against Chelsea match was one of the most entertaining battles between both teams in ages. Both teams played at an exciting pace and there was none of the anti-football tactics that we were used to whenever former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho came up against his arch-rival Rafa Benitez.

But when is all said and done, I felt a little bit of sadness watching the Champions League this week. Sadness because I know there are only a handful of games left in the Champions League that we’ll see on ESPN2 before the TV rights are handed over to Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports (in the United States) for the next three seasons.

The sadness for me is two-fold. First, I’m going to miss Derek Rae’s commentating and ESPN’s production, which has been top class. Second and most importantly of all, I’m concerned that we’re going to lose out on the casual observer who will no longer have easy access to soccer.

For die-hard soccer fans like us, it’s not much skin off our back. Most of us already subscribe to Fox Soccer Channel. But there are two massive groups of people in the United States which are going to miss out: (1) the mainstream America who get a rare opportunity to see soccer on TV in sports bars, airport lounges, office break-rooms and other places where ESPN2 is shown all the time. And (2) those soccer fans who follow the sport but who can’t afford or who are unable to get Fox Soccer Channel.

While many casual observers who watch the game at sports bars are not soccer fans, it does give the sport a chance to capture the attention and interest of those fans. The hope would be that it would get them to change their mind about soccer and to open a door to invite them in to watch more world-class football. With the Champions League TV coverage moving from ESPN to Fox Soccer Channel, we’re losing that opportunity.

For the soccer fans who don’t or can’t subscribe to Fox Soccer Channel, the move from ESPN will definitely get more of these fans to subscribe to the channel on their cable or satellites. But, I was honestly surprised by reading comments and message boards around the Internet whereby there are so many people who are unable to get Fox for many different reasons (it’s not available on their cable package, the college doesn’t make it available as part of their TV package, etc, etc).

So while Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta winning the rights to the Champions League TV coverage is a victory for die-hard soccer fans who already have those channels and won’t have to worry about games being shown in progress or delayed due to other American sports, the move from ESPN is a shot in the heart to people – like myself – who want to see the sport become more popular among the mainstream in America.

My last concern is that we may end up losing Derek Rae. If ESPN is unable to win the TV rights to the Premier League in the United States, I don’t see Derek Rae staying at ESPN. He’s a world-class commentator who deserves to be commentating on world-class matches week in, week out. I don’t want to wait every two years to hear him on the World Cup, then the European Championships two years later. Personally I hope ESPN wins the TV rights to the Premier League and sub-licenses the remainder of games it can’t show to Fox and Setanta. Unfortunately given ESPN’s track record of losing TV soccer rights this year, I don’t see that happening, but we don’t know what’s going to happen until the fat lady sings.

What’s your opinion about ESPN losing the Champions League TV rights to Fox and Setanta, and what that means for the rise or fall of the sport in the United States? Click the comments link below and let us know.

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