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

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

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.

This entry was posted in General, Leagues: EPL. Bookmark the permalink.

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.
View all posts by Christopher Harris →

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

  1. JC says:

    Will ESPN still have the rights to broadcast it to their networks outside the US such as Asia and Australia etc? If so, i think you’ll find Derek Rae and Tommy Onion Bags continuing to work for those feeds and they’ll be around for the world cup for ESPN and ESPN 2 in the U.S. in 2010. Personally, I will be glad to get rid of Smythe. Sometimes i wonder if he’s watching the same game as me. However, i have been grateful to ESPN for showing the Champs League for all these years. When i first moved to America there was next to no football coverage other than MISL and US world cup matches and the commentary then was abysmal. Does anyone else remember Ricky Davis’ analysis during the World Cups in the 80′s and early 90′s. God awful.
    Cheers.

  2. odessasteps magazine says:

    Maybe they could finally use Derek on MLS games, even though it’s a waste of his skills. I don’t think people need to hear an American voice do the game, just because it’s an American League. Same with USNT games.

  3. Ryan says:

    I, for one, will be glad to see ESPN’s coverage go. While I agree with the production value comment, Fox has announced HD coverage by next year’s Champions League. I understand the blogger’s angle of the “average” citizen not having access as user-friendly as ESPN, but there are quite a few things that ESPN has done that are so contrary to the actual fan’s needs that the pros are moot:

    1. Replays. I purchased a cable package (with a million channels I don’t need) and an additional sports package (for FSC with an addition slew of channels I don’t need) to discover that I had to watch the replays online being that my provider did not want to give me Classic, Deportes, or even offer Setanta.

    2. ESPN’s ticker. There is nothing worse than saving a replay for later only to have the score revealed on the ticker below.

    Ultimately, ESPN doesn’t give a shit about the soccer fan and were just trying to grab some viewers on a low-volume weekday.

    Take care of the fans first, then worry about converting the average American.

  4. PZ says:

    Derek Rae does the local broadcasts for the Revs. He’ll be fine I’m sure.

    The funny thing is that ESPN has boosted their soccer coverage and reporting staff in Bristol…even if most of it is just for soccernet.com I’d thought it was all part of a big push towards more coverage somehow. I didn’t think it would mostly be via ESPN360. My gut, though I have no real knoweldge, is that they didn’t think Fox would be so persistent in obtaining the rights.

    Honestly, if a match like yesterday’s is on tap, I’ve a feeling Fox will find a way to get it on their regional FSN network instead of, or in addition to, FSC. I honestly don’t think Fox will screw things up and allow fans to miss out on matches like we had yesterday.

  5. Eladio says:

    I’ve always been sort of critical of folks who whinge and moan about how they “can’t afford” getting FSC or Setanta. I haven’t had cable in over 3 years, and I realize that most people use cable rather than FIOS or DirecTV, so I decided to get a gauge on how much more $$ we’re actually talking to get FSC.

    On Comcast’s site (I used them, as they’re the local provider here in MA), they have the following tiers:
    Digital Starter: $62/month. This is the basic cable monthly fee, and while they have an intro price of $29.95/mo, it goes up to $62 after 6 mo’s. This level includes ESPN2, but not FSC. (There is a BASIC CABLE level of $9.95/mo, but it doesn’t include ESPN2, so I disregarded that in this analysis.)
    Digital Preferred: $76/month. This includes ESPNClassic, but not FSC.
    Digital Preferred Plus: $90.45/month. As far as I can tell, this is the cheapest level where one can also get FSC. This is Digital Preferred PLUS 1 Premium package. I can’t tell if the Sports Package is technically one of those, but I do believe it is.

    So to get FSC, one must pay an extra $28.45/month, or $341.40/year. That’s quite a steep price, indeed, for struggling footy fans.

    Setanta is not available (I don’t think) on Comcast in MA yet. I know for DTV and Fios, I pay an extra $14.95/mo for it, tho I only pay for it 9-10 mo’s out of the year. I guess the bottom line is that in order to get FSC and Setanta and ensuring almost double the coverage of CL and EPL games, you’re looking at close to $500/year. Personally I think it’s well worth it (considering I’d have to go to pubs to see Arsenal play most games without those options, I’d spend more than that on beer), but I completely understand now when people complain about games moving to FSC and the cost that means in seeing them.

  6. Myopian says:

    Who’s to say that the casual ESPN fan was impacting the viewership? I think the move was a good thing primarily because of the live viewing options (selfish for me), some of which will trickle down to the lower tier via FSN and FX, but also for the possibility of trickling it down to Fox itself. They can advertise the game/channel on Fox during NFL games, they can promote it to the non-ESPN demographic on other Fox properties and perhaps promote it, and by extension, the channel in a way we hadn’t thought of before.

    I mean, ESPN’s coverage of soccer on non-soccer programming (incl. Sportscenter) was between the indifferent and snarkish – to the point where they cubbyholed it with the 5-second Spanish report. Let’s see what these other guys can do with it. FSC already has some nice out-of-the-box commercials – maybe some of that trickles down and they can create a demand.

    ESPN is tired. Ask any fan tired of their NASCAR, NHRA, NBA or Emmit Smith coverage. Ask anyone forced to sit through Chris Berman at the US Open or the semi/finals of any of the other sporting events where he big-times his way onto the set to emcee only the high-profile events. And what’s stopping Derek Rae from going to FSC?

    Keep hope alive.

  7. Myopian says:

    btw – FSC I believe is on the $5 sports tier that adds on to the lowest level Digital package at Comcast. The same sports tier that brings NBA TV, the NHL Channel and the NFL Network.

  8. Hank says:

    Exactly. Anyone reading this post obviously cares enough about soccer to spend (waste? :) their time sitting around reading soccer blogs, for us ponying up the $10 a month to watch matches is a no-brainer. The Champions League leaving ESPN is really a blow to growing the soccer fan-base in the US. The extra $ for FSC, the availability, the fact its not a default channel in every bar in the country, that’s a pretty steep barrier to entry for anyone who isn’t already hooked on the sport (or on this particular competition).

  9. Ryan says:

    This is not entirely correct. David Sternburg the president of Fox Sports International was on World Soccer Daily this week, and said games will be televised on FSC, FX, and Fox Sports Net Channels. This will then give the casual observer continued access to the Champions League, as most of these channels are available on basic cable packages except for FSC. In fact coverage will begin with the 3rd Qualification Rounds, which has never been televised in the US. With access on multiple channels more games will be televised. They will also be using the international feed for the commentating, which will be a step up from ESPN’s Derek Rae. I love Derek Rae, but having access to UEFA’s International commentating will be great! Of course they will all be in HD as well. And not the cheap HD that ESPN tries to pawn off to the average viewer. ESPN blew it, and I think we will all benefit from their incompetence.

  10. Dawg says:

    People are overlooking the fact that it has already been announced that many Champions League matches will appear on the Fox Sports regional networks and the Champions League finals will be on FX. Most people with basic cable have those two networks.

    Also Setanta should be left out of this conversation. They shared rights with ESPN and will now share rights with Fox. No real difference there.

    I’m struggling like everyone else and will probably lose my job this fall (and a baby on the way at the end of this month). However, budget yourself properly and you’ll be fine. I know a friend who is complaining about this and I was like “stop smoking then”.

  11. Jar says:

    The fact that ESPN chose to play Masters reruns over the Barca/Bayern game in the normal slot on ESPN Classic is a joke. Even from a ratings standpoint it was a ridiculous move for them. And showing it a day late on Thursday…unacceptable. Why not just air the typical Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys slurpfest. And ya, nothing like seeing scores of the other games scrolled on the ticker to ruin those for you too (in the unlikely event that you’d be able to watch those games)

  12. Double Pivot says:

    ESPN Hates this sport. With a f**king passion. Don’t tell me they don’t. The fact that they refuse to do anything with the sport in the US is well documented. So f**k them. The sport will always have a better chance at FSC/Setanta than with a bunch of assholes in Connecticut. Let them go back to doing what they do best, showing stupid sissy talking heads talk about sports in a loud voice.

    And its fans like us that bring people to the game more than ESPN covering it. ESPN has never ever ever converted one person to this sport. It’s a ridiculous argument.

    Derek Rae is a loss, but for f**ks sake, he’s not a gamebreaker.

  13. RJ says:

    I am a casual soccer fan. I DVR all the champions league games while I am at work and watch them when I get home. I don’t have FSC and won’t be paying more than I already do to get it with Dish. If it is true that the games will be on FX and local Fox Sports channels then great, otherwise I don’t think I will be watching them unfortunately.

  14. The Gaffer says:

    While no TV sports network is perfect, I have to disagree with the heavy-handed criticism aimed at ESPN. The TV network has been a vital part of the history of soccer on US TV since the 1980s. I fondly remember watching games involving the US national team on the network.

    Moving closer to now, how can we not forget the excellent coverage of Euro 2008 which was a massive achievement in terms of production.

    Within the top ranks at ESPN, John Skipper is a definite soccer fan.

    ESPN does not hate soccer. Sure, most of the pundits for their other sports probably do.

    As for whether ESPN has created any soccer fans, it most undoubtedly has — legions of them. After every World Cup, there are tons of new fans to the sport thanks to the coverage from ESPN & ABC. And that’s just for starters.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  15. SSReporters says:

    You do realize that the international feed for the UEFA Champions League involves the Sky Sports commentators?

    Martin Tyler > Derek Rae

    Ian Darke > Adrian Healey

    With all due respect, with what FSC has put out, I don’t think this is a bad thing anymore. I was upset at first, but it sounds like they are doing a lot more than ESPN could ever do.

  16. Norman Parke says:

    This grab for every red cent by these money grabbing bastards has got to be stopped, I subscribe to Foxtel here in Australia and enjoy the EPL coverage, we get very little from our own media, they are obsessed by AFL and anything else gets little mention , (unless an Aussie is involved !!!!), but all was well until Setanta came along ??, I’m retired and scant afford Foxtel let alone another provider, this being so , we get n coverage of the FA Cup, and whereas before, the chat at our local soccer club was all about the FA, it barely gets a mention now, maybe the greedy people have killed the golden goose ?

  17. cftv says:

    As someone pointed out Derrick and Tommy can still call games from Bristol for their international viewers that ESPN International Caters too. I just don’t see Derrick at his age moving to LA to call games on Tuesday and Wednesday Nights as he seems settled in the New England area.

    It would be a loss because he is the classiest futbol PBP guy in the States and he won’t be able to do his thing for the American Audience unless ESPN does make a run for the Prem and uses him and Tommy from the studio for one of the games if indeed ESPN wins multiple packages for the Premiership.

    Of course I would prefer the games airing on the ESPN Family of Network because its the primary sports station in America and has the best chance to to convert casual viewers to hardcore viewers because having over 90M homes is a lot better than the 33M homes that FSC currently has along with the 80M homes or so that get any of the Fox Regional Sports Stations.

  18. John says:

    Why are people complaining? You get:

    1) MORE champions league games (Qualifying rounds)…
    2) …in High Definition…
    3) …on a channel DEDICATED to football..
    4) …with MANY more outlets than ESPN (FSN, FX, Fox)…
    5) …with minimal relative cost (Add up those Starbuck’s latte’s and compare)…
    5) …AND will share anything that they can’t show with Setanta (Ok, let the pub pay for this one)

    Some people on here are more spoiled than C. Ronaldo

  19. Gavin says:

    Not quite sure I buy into the “people who can’t afford FSC”…I mean, i have FSC, and only pay $5.95 a month for it. If you afford to have cable tv or satellite tv, you can afford one extra channel.

    Bring it on – FSC over ESPN ANYDAY!

  20. Dan says:

    Espn definitely has as many channels and a lot more sports outlets than fox.
    FX is a movie channel not a sports channel the casual viewer looking for sports does not tune in to FX.

    FSC is not available from my cable provider they just took it away this year do to “contracting agreements”. And while all the people reading blogs like this will probably do what ever it take to find their team and watch the big games. Their are a lot of fans out there that like and watch soccer just not enough to buy fsc, many probably don’t even know how to get it. For example two of my roommates watch the champions league games when they are on but don’t really follow much else.

    If fox wants to do more to promote the game and try to get it on the lower tier at every cable company then, yes this is a great move! But I just don’t see that happening. And can some one tell me why fsc looks like sh*t when it comes to quality. I can sometimes watch a much better quality feed of games on the internet. I am very skeptical of their hd.

  21. jive johnny says:

    Barring good fortune with the lottery or scratch tickets, I guess this is my last EUFA cup for a while. Gradually, all of my favorite viewing pasttimes have moved on to the stratosphere of cable/satellite carriers. I’ll get over it, but gosh, I’m gonna miss those good old days!

  22. olivert says:

    I do know that Tommy Smyth will remain with ESPN through 2012.

    I don’t know about Derek Rae’s situation to comment.

    The pay-video rights to UEFA Champions League and Spanish Primera Division (La Liga) in the English-speaking markets in the South Pacific Ocean region, including Australia and New Zealand, will be decided soon.

    I would not be surprised if ESPN were to give up both products in that part of the world.

    If that were to happen, then ESPN International would have a surplus of English-speaking soccer announcers and anyone who hasn’t signed a long-term contract yet will be vulnerable.

  23. anton says:

    Casual football watchers are notworld going to become football fans because of just the champions league. MLS and World Cup are going to be the major avenues. Sorry to say, but many americans don’t care about the game unless an american team is playing. Once MLS and WPS get well established on local TV, then there will be growth. Foreign games will always be minority-interest for now.

  24. Samir S says:

    I am glad FSC got the rights. Now, I don’t (hopefully) have to listen to that idiot Tommy Smyth commentating on games anymore. He doesn’t know anything about the game and is completely useless.

  25. Jeff Williams says:

    ESPN losing Champs League is a big blow. But then again – these morons never knew how to actually use the CL to their advantage. First of all …. I agree with most postings here. I would see a CL match with an amazing finish … then Sports Center comes on and absolutely NO MENTION of the match that just ended. And worse – the idiots working the desk would sneer at soccer. The most aggravating thing they ever did was that Spanish piece on soccer … when they were covering Euopre for goodness sake.

    ESPN simply never got it when it came to soccer. They tried everything. Different branding campaigns ‘if you like baseball … you’ll like soccer!’ Remember that stupid campaign?

    Derek Rae – ok he’s good. But Tommy Smyth? Crap. Then they put Julie Foudy to do soccer? Come on …. one insult after another.

    To their credit they tried with MLS and that has been pretty good. If ESPN really cared about soccer they’d purchase Libertadores ….

  26. Wayne says:

    Will there be a break every 10 minutes during the match on ESPN, like they usually do on American TV?!!

  27. Kevin says:

    ESPN makes a joke of its soccer coverage – breaking to Sportscentre five minutes before the end of a Champions League match is ridiculous, and half the time they don’t even show soccer. It is clear that Americans have no real interest in the sport, even the top division matches in America are watched by half-full stadiums!

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