Why FOX’s World Cup TV Rights Deal is a Victory For the Premier League, Not MLS

FOX winning the TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments is, in a strange way, a victory for the Premier League. FOX Soccer has built its soccer empire on the success it has achieved with U.S. coverage of the Premier League. That strong foundation helped build FOX Soccer into what it is today, and two years ago helped them acquire the coverage of the UEFA Champions League.

Some soccer fans have been throwing their toys out of the pram as if the ‘FOX Acquires World Cup TV rights’ story is the end of the world. But the real pain point and the reason that many of them are defensive is because they’ve lost their security blanket. When ESPN paid $100 million for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, part of the deal was to also cover USMNT and MLS games. Now that ESPN has lost out to FOX, the sweet deal for MLS being lumped in with U.S. Soccer and the World Cup — thereby artificially inflating the value of MLS TV rights — is no more. Now that this MLS season has ended, FOX won’t be covering Major League Soccer. And MLS and U.S. Soccer is now out in the open, and will justly receive whatever TV rights dollar amount the market can bear.

When the current TV rights deal for Major League Soccer expires at the end of 2014, who will be interested in bidding for the rights if the carrot on the stick of World Cup coverage is no longer an incentive? FOX won’t be interested in bidding for MLS given the amount of money they’ve spent on TV rights for the World Cup plus the appalling TV ratings FOX Soccer received for its coverage of MLS. Will ESPN even be interested if there’s no World Cup TV coverage as an incentive to secure a MLS deal? So perhaps NBC and ESPN will bid against each other for the rights instead, or work out a shared deal? The bottom line is that the next two years are critical for Major League Soccer. The top division in the United States needs to produce impressive TV ratings on its own merits on both NBC and ESPN. It needs to prove that it deserves to earn as much as it can without being padded with coverage of the US men’s national team.

Not surprisingly, many MLS apologists are down on FOX Soccer even before FOX won the bid for the World Cup TV rights. They argue that FOX did a poor job of promoting America’s top league. While this is a fair argument, FOX has in the past 12 months significantly improved its presentation and coverage of the league, but TV ratings were still poor. Rather than blame the inferior quality of the MLS product on the field, MLS bloggers prefer to make FOX the scapegoat instead.

It’s time to stop hating on FOX Soccer. Instead it’s time to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that they make the right decisions moving forward to improve their coverage. Many readers who rave about how incredible ESPN’s coverage is seem to forget how woeful the 2006 World Cup broadcast was by ESPN and ABC (and forget how many Monday 3pm games have been showing up on ESPN3.com instead of ESPN2 recently). In the span of four years, ESPN’s coverage went from laughable to simply stunning. FOX has seven years and a giant head start. The next few years will be interesting times indeed for soccer fans in the United States, and FOX needs to be congratulated for making a significant investment in the sport of soccer. Without them, the soccer viewing landscape in this country would look completely different.

55 thoughts on “Why FOX’s World Cup TV Rights Deal is a Victory For the Premier League, Not MLS”

  1. I think we will see what FOX will be able to do by there coverage of 2013/14 UCL season. If that doesn’t imporve then I will have no hope for the WC. ESPN brought in some of the best English speaking announcers and pundints form about the world to cover the WC, but I just don’t see FOX doing that. They just bring in people they thing will draw an audience. I would love to have FOX prove me wrong, but there track record with the rest of the sports isn’t very comforting.

  2. Only soccer fans tune into Fox Soccer for soccer. If MLS wants to get more mainstream fans to watch its game it is better off being on nbc & espn, as fox soccer is on tiered packages that cost extra money. HD would be a plus. last I heard from comcast was no to HD.

    1. The MLS Cup was on ESPN, but the overnight TV ratings was almost half of what the taped game between Chelsea and Liverpool was.

      Having MLS on NBC and ESPN isn’t going to magically fix the problem.

      FOX Soccer is available in HD in some Comcast markets. Most of the regions don’t offer it yet, however.

      The Gaffer

  3. The article barely mentions the Premier League and with no meaningful purpose. Change the heading.

    I would watch the MLS more often if the televised games didn’t start at 9 or 10 pm in my time zone.

    1. David, most of the story is about MLS, but the headline stands. The argument is that EPL TV ratings will continue to increase with FOX Soccer taking a leading position in bringing soccer to the US market. Therefore, it’s going to be a victory for the Premier League. The build up to the World Cup will be seen through an EPL-lens, while MLS have a large number of issues it has to deal with in the next two years.

      The Gaffer

  4. I think that ESPN did a fine job of coverage in South Africa. It was professional, smooth and they used some insightful analysts without overdoing the hype. Their commentating team did fairly well too, except I have some concern over the way they filter crowd noise. I realize there were issues with the vuzuvela and all, but I have noticed on Premier League coverage that, noise is still filtered. FOX seems to do the same thing, especially with it’s Champions League coverage, and it seriously depletes the quality of the intensity.

    With regard to FOX winning the rights, I’m a little bothered by their shambolic coverage of the Champions League this year. I understand that sometimes they are at the mercy of the cable carriers, such as Comcast who don’t provide FOX Plus, and in some cases, have reduced bandwith to where the screen size becomes distorted, but their choice of studio analysts is poor. Barton and Sullivan argue like a couple of schoolkids, mostly due to Barton’s complete lack of respect for Sullivan, which I do share, and Wynalda is just not polished enough to control them, which leaves the viewer somewhat uncomfortably embarrassed.

    Hell, for yesterday’s Man Utd Benfica match, they even announced that Gary Neville would be color commentator when in fact, you could tell it was Steve McClaren and not Neville. I don’t believe that they corrected themselves either.

    I might be splitting hairs here, but if we’re going to have a month of coverage, there is nothing worse than having to stomach some boob staring you in the face who doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.

    I can take opinion differences – just don’t put me a guy up there in a clown suit.

  5. The only problem with Fox getting the WC is that if they show the majority of the games on FS or FS+ then many people won’t have access to one or both channels. I for one cannot get FS+ because my cable provider does not offer it. ESPN is offered by all cable and satellite providers and they have several different channels and all are available to viewers for free as part of the basic package.

    Fox still has time to fix this but does anyone really think Fox will? After all we are talking about Fox.

    1. I’m sure FOX will have the World Cup games on FOX, FX, FOX Sports (regional), FOX Soccer, FOX Soccer Plus and FOXSoccer.tv. If your cable company doesn’t offer FOX Soccer Plus (as is the case for me, too), FOXSoccer.tv carries all of those games and much more.

      FOX has seven years to line everything up. Hopefully by getting the WC rights, cable companies such as Comcast will wise up and start offering FOX Soccer Plus and FOX Soccer HD.

      The Gaffer

    1. God forbid we have to pay for something! Sorry Tony, but while FOXSoccer.tv had a lot of bumps, it’s important that soccer fans pay for coverage of the game instead of expecting everything for free.

      It may not seem that you’re paying for ESPN3, but you’re paying for it indirectly through your cable or satellite bill.

      The Gaffer

      1. Saying god forbid that we have to pay for something is an incredibly ignorant statement. The way for soccer to grow in this country is to gain more casual fans that will get hooked. No casual fan will pay extra to watch something they don’t care or even know much about yet. This means that the ratings will go down, advertising revenues will decrease and soccer’s growth in the US would be stunted. I thought espn did a great job covering the world cup because casual sports fans WATCH ESPN. they will turn on espn just to see whats going on, they see soccer, maybe they switch to espn2, soccer again. All of a sudden they start watching more and more games and get into it. Now imagine how many people did that for that last world cup. That will NOT happen if people need to pay extra to watch a game on some channel that Comcast does not even offer in HD, because those people will turn on ESPN and keep it on.

  6. The on-air talent at FSC pales in comparison to what ESPN bring to the table. It’s not even close.

    The only reason the production standards have increased is to suit the Premier League and to impress FIFA when bidding for the World Cup rights. The MLS broadcasts were not well produced and this whole soccer night in America promotion was created during the last year of Fox’s MLS contract.

    To me hiring Piers Morgan is another bad move by Fox. ESPN tried out unconventional insight with Rush Limbaugh and he was fired quickly. FSC is just a game network, it has no idea how to come up with original programming suited for a 24 hour network. As long as the network’s go to highlight show is from Canada then that’s all that needs to be said really.

    1. Fernando, or others, so who do you propose FOX sign as a dream-team ticket for presenters and pundits who are available to live in Los Angeles year round and who don’t have other commitments?

      When considering who you would add, remember that these individuals will need to attract mainstream TV viewers, not the hardcore soccer audience.

      Let me know who you would suggest.

      The Gaffer

      1. Gaffer,

        While understanding that the travel between England & Bristol,CT is close enough to merit Steve McManamon to drop by Bristol once in a while it is quite easier to invite someone to live in Los Angeles year round.

        Why can’t Andy Gray be sounded out about this? He can certainly do other media commitments to the UK from Los Angeles. Maybe Richard Keys as well. This comes down to Fox not wanting to spend money until it has to.

        At least that’s my opinion but it took them years to get production up to acceptable standards. Let’s not forget that Andy Gray & Richard Keys did a WC 2010 recap show from one of the shoddiest looking sets ever devised on FSC.

        1. Sorry Fernando, but Andy Gray and Richard Keys would be the two worst possible signings FOX could make. It would be a PR nightmare for FOX to hire these two people who are complete sexists.

          Steve McManaman, I’m sure, is under contract to ESPN, but perhaps FOX could figure out a way to get Macca. But there’s no guarantee that Macca would want to live on the west coast for an entire year (or more) between now and the 2018 World Cup.

          Who else should FOX consider signing?

          The Gaffer

          1. Their comments were totally insensitive but how much that would play here I’m not so sure. Managers without jobs are always good short term solutions, Mark Hughes was sitting on a three man panel on Sky yesterday. Surely he could put up with living in LA for a few months while he’s out of a managerial job.

          2. I agree with Fernando. My suggestion is that Fox at least uses better analysts for the games they show on the main network. Have them present from England/Europe (for the ~5 games a year that are actually on Fox). Use freelancers, borrow from Sky.

            Getting their own commentary crew in the UK would be a good idea as well. Maybe try to hire someone like Bill Leslie, Daniel Mann or Steve Banyard (who has plenty of World Cup experience) to do 1 Premier League game and 1 Champions League game each week on-site. That would at least improve the quality of the big games (ex. Chelsea vs. Liverpool and Man United vs. Benfica). ESPN has proven that you don’t even really need a studio crew for those games. Someone like Mann or Leslie could be a top 2 commentator at Sky by 2018, which would make them a perfectly suitable choice as a #1 World Cup commentator in the US.

          3. lol “It would be a PR nightmare for FOX to hire these two people who are complete sexists”. That made me laugh. 1. Richard Keys never said anything, he resigned because Andy Gray got sacked and 2. Andy Gray’s comments wasn’t exactly the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life, it was just a bit of lads banter! It was purely a case of Sky Sports taking the moral high ground! I was watching Keys and Gray from the very first day Sky Sports launched its Premier League coverage back in 1992 and it was a very sad day to see them go. Yeah ok he wasn’t to every footy fans tastes but it’s different now not hearing him and Martin Tyler on Super Sunday.

            I think they’d make a great addition to Fox broadcasts in America – they know their stuff. It’d be pathetic if that 1 tiny comment made a long while ago was brought up against them half way across the world.

          4. And? It’s the exact same thing lads down the pub would say, it’s the type of thing Murdoch’s own (now closed down) paper relied on and the article you linked to was from the Daily Mail. Pretty spot on for them actually because it takes nothing to happen for them to stir it up into a whirlwind frenzy!

            If you still think those comments are really bad then there’s no hope at all. They weren’t bad at the time and still are not now! In my opinion at least, I respect that you have your own.

  7. No its not time to “stop hating on Fox soccer” for years there production on anything MLS was a joke…also they can have a weekly show on the “J” league etc but not on MLS…..disgusting cant wait for Versus/NBC

  8. Something to keep in mind regarding on-air talent: they always move to where the action is. Commenters above who prefer ESPN studio/game talent can just look at past TV deal migrations and probably rest easy. When the NFL, MLB or NBA change network partners, 9 times out of 10 the best TV talent moves with them. Al Michaels isn’t doing Big 10 football games on ABC now that NBC got the good night time NFL package. And it is common elsewhere as well.

    If FOX is serious about becoming the premier (no pun intended) soccer carrier in the U.S. then they will ante up for the talent to support the product. Otherwise the fortune they have already paid for broadcast rights will be a relative waste. When the World Cup deal was announced my first thought was that I hope it isn’t a “cash grab” by FOX and that they are serious about putting soccer at the forefront. We will know very soon.

  9. This post, like most of what appears under the byline of “The Gaffer,” makes no sense whatsoever. What “the carrot on the stick of World Cup coverage [sic]” existed for the current NBC deal with MLS, something inked just this past August?

    Obviously there wasn’t any connection to World Cup rights and the deal between NBC and MLS, no matter how hard one tries to parse your tortured metaphor. The exact same factors that convinced NBC to buy MLS TV rights this year will be there again in 2014.

    Stick to something you know best — whining about how MLS has done S. Florida wrong given the awesome soccer fanbase there. It’s obvious that TV ratings and financial motivations behind soccer television deals is beyond your comprehension.

    1. I do write about what I know, and I’ve been covering this space for far longer than you probably realize (six years). I didn’t infer that there was a deal between NBC and MLS that included WC rights. But that deal between NBC and MLS was $10 million per year — far less than the $20 million that MLS wanted from FOX for the same rights. Whether NBC will renew those rights from 2014 onwards, we’ll have to wait and see. But the main point is that the MLS TV rights deal won’t include the 2018 and 2022 World Cup.

      South Florida does have a great soccer fanbase here. We had 76,000 turn out for Barcelona, almost 20,000 for the Gold Cup game and over 20,000 for the recent US game (more than the number of people who turned up for the US game a few days later in New Jersey).

      The Gaffer

  10. Save all their production costs and just pick up the feed, commentary, pre and post match analysis from the BBC, ITV, and Sky. This is the way it was in the 90’s with the Euros and WC, and it was way better (though you paid for the tournament).

    I will never watch a pre or post match show on Fox or ESPN. Just listen to BBC Five Live, as I do every weekend,
    and midweek CL nights.

    1. BBC Five Live commentary is good, but ESPN’s TV coverage of the 2010 World Cup had the best studio team and commentators anywhere on the planet. If FOX wants to do the same, they can.

      The Gaffer

      1. Exactly. You can get anyone to be a studio analyst for 6 weeks if you pay them enough no matter where they have to go. The shining example of this was Roberto Martinez last summer who I think was the best studio analyst of them all and who many people would never have thought of.

        Just get football people who know the sport and are easy on the eye. No Piers Morgan, Christopher Sullivan, or Nick Webster please. One reason that ESPN did so well is that they kept the boo-yah clowns away from it all.

        1. I agree with you about the six weeks job. But I think we’re talking about two different things. The above readers were criticizing Barton, Sullivan and others. But I was asking for suggestions of who should be the full-time pundits who work all year in LA. I’d also like to hear suggestions for WC 2018 (a lot can change between now and then, though!)

          The Gaffer

          1. Fox will have SkySports produce and possibly staff their WC coverage as they have nothing to do with it in the UK (BBC and ITV run that show there). A WC for foxsoccer is one for all of News Corp, I think they will have all hands on deck and then some.

          2. Sky Sports never have anything to do with the World Cup. Never have and won’t for a long time while the sport is still protected here in the UK for BBC and ITV. A World Cup for Fox Soccer is not one for all of News Corp.

  11. The fact that a taped foreign game got WAY BETTER ratings than the local league final, shows that people love EPL way more, and with good reason. The other league is garbage. Horrible football and fans.

    They had their most popular team at home playing, and the game was hyped all over ESPN. And still no one watched.

    I live in USA, watch EPL, and will get my friends to watch EPL. None of us will waste our time with the local league. it is mickey mouse.

    1. My brain is hardwired to search for football between 7 AM and 1 PM. I like being able to get the sports out of the way in the morning and then get on with the day. I forget to look for anything in the evening. Of course, not getting ESPN probably helps with such things.

  12. Fox getting the WC is bad news for soccer fans in this country. FS, FS+ and foxsoccer.tv are all much worse than ESPN, ESPN2 or espn3.com. How sure are we that Fox will show most of the games on the regular Fox channel? Are they going to preempt all their regular programs everday to cover the WC? I think it’s more likely that the regular Fox channel will show some of the games including the final.

    Not only is ESPN free for all their channels but espn3.com is free to most cable and satellite customers while foxsoccer.tv is $20 a month and it is still buggy. Today I had problems with it during the CL games.

    This is terrible news for the soccer fan who might not be able to see all the WC games live and who may have to pay for some of it as well.

    1. Malcolm, soccer fans had to pay for ESPN and ESPN2 for the 2010 World Cup to watch those games. What’s the difference between that and watching World Cup games on FOX, which is free-to-air. The highest rated games, I’m sure, will be shown on the network with the greatest footprint, which is FOX. But it’s just one channel so they can’t show all the games on there. I’m sure there’ll be plenty to go around between FOX and the other FOX channels.

      And what about the time difference at World Cup 2018? A 7pm local time game in Moscow would be 10am ET (7am PT). FOX shows Maury Povich’s talk show at 10am ET. The season high for Maury is 3.5 million viewers. In the 2010 World Cup, 14.9 million people watched USA against Ghana on ABC.

      The Gaffer

      1. Putting a weekday World Cup group Match on FOX is crazy, there a big market for syndicated programing and FOX affiliates make a lot of money on syndicated programing, they are not going to give that up for Japan Sweden in Group D. Most of these matches are going to FX, maybe the last Group games with to FSN. Also when FOX was bidding for the Olympics, it’s Sister network, My Network TV was discussed in the bid, as a second Over-the-Air network. Maybe that was in the World Cup bid.

  13. I would like to repost this as an original post rather than a reply

    Saying god forbid that we have to pay for something is an incredibly ignorant statement. The way for soccer to grow in this country is to gain more casual fans that will get hooked. No casual fan will pay extra to watch something they don’t care or even know much about yet. This means that the ratings will go down, advertising revenues will decrease and soccer’s growth in the US would be stunted. I thought espn did a great job covering the world cup because casual sports fans WATCH ESPN. they will turn on espn just to see whats going on, they see soccer, maybe they switch to espn2, soccer again. All of a sudden they start watching more and more games and get into it. Now imagine how many people did that for that last world cup. That will NOT happen if people need to pay extra to watch a game on some channel that Comcast does not even offer in HD, because those people will turn on ESPN and keep it on.

    You are completely ignoring the fact that you are a fan of the game, and most people in the united states are indifferent. Hell I’m a huge soccer fan and still don’t pay for Fox Soccer because it is terrible and not in HD where I live (this is the same for many people). Also soccer TV rating in the US are essentially useless. That liverpool game had a much higher rating but how many more people do you think went to the pub at night to watch the MLS game that didn’t want to go earlier. Also, such a small % of the population watch soccer it is hard to get an accurate depiction of which drew more fans. The margin for error is way too high.

    1. Mike, good points. My argument about saying that soccer fans need to pay for matches is aimed at the hardcore audience. Mainstream sports fans will watch the World Cup and the occasional game here and there. They’re not the audience for FOXSoccer.tv. FOX’s broadband site is aimed at hardcore fans who want to watch everything.

      I disagree with you when you say that soccer TV ratings in the US are essentially useless. Tell that to the sponsors who paid millions to advertise during the World Cup.

      THe Gaffer

  14. I would prefer espn to have coverage of the WC because they bring in talent for presenting etc. From a coverage/availability standpoint we shouldn’t worry because fox knows that regular americans watch the world cup even through they wont watch soccer any other time.
    They will offer bars special wc packages so they can get all world cup matches so going for an early or late lunch from work and catching matches will be ok. They will also spread matches across their networks with more popular matches (USA, England, Brazil etc,) being on the main fox channel.

    Don’t forget this in a few years time so we will prob all be steaming these matches on our phones in HD given how fast technology is moving lol.

  15. Out of curiosity, how much do you guys pay for Fox Soccer? Is it a subscription channel or is it free? I understand Fox Soccer Plus is subscription based similar to Sky Sports?

    1. I pay an extra $10 for the sports tier of programming (comes with about 10 sports channels and fox soccer). Some cable companies have fox soccer in regular packages but many offer it as part of an additional sports tier. This is why many get FSC but not fox soccer plus because they are basically paying $25 extra per month for 2 extra channels.

  16. What a joke of an article. How does this alledge hit to MLS help the Premier league ? It doesn’t. Plus, Fox still stinks at last glance, which was days ago for me…………………………………..Foreign soccer will always be a specialty sport that very few people watch with no upside outside of a little extra cash from overattended friendlies …………………………………….MLS is not much different, but with HUGE upside even in the confines of soccer is not a big money sport and not widely watched in this country……………….just keep dreaming Gaffer and throwing out insane articles like this, they are moderately funny, but a smarter route would be to quit caring how many don’t share your passion and quit trying to convince everyone someday they will.

    1. “a specialty sport that very few people watch” … Charles, even for you this is laughably ignorant. More people in the US prefer to watch the English Premier League than MLS. Get over it.

      1. Nobody watches either. Do I have to put facts in there for that. Or do we all agree on that ?

        It is a dumb post. He says that Fox winning the World Cup helps the Premier league and then offers no reasons why it helps the Premier league….after which he tells me I don’t have facts when I call his post dumb and say Fox Soccer stinks. What kind of facts am I supposed to put in there for that ? Why don’t you put in some facts when you call MLS an inferior product ?

  17. so to reverse engineer it- say the NBA came to England or showed a Celtics -Lakers game on TV would anyone be surprised it had better ratings in Europe than a local game? people generally want to see the best in a given sport

  18. I have no real preference or bone to pick with either ESPN or Fox Soccer, but production values on Fox Soccer were awful several years ago and it does not have the reach of ESPN or ESPN2, etc. I would say other than hard core sports fans, most have no idea what channel it is on the cable box.

    Watch Fox Soccer long enough and you start to believe you need Proactive cosmetic products or that you should refinance your life. Or get confused and order Kickmedic.

    That’s no excuse for the poor national MLS ratings. That’s just what they are and reality of where MLS sits. MLS needs to strive to get to the NHL level with low but respectable national ratings and decent local ratings.

  19. I do fear like many that unless FOX gets it perfect we’ll all think it’s crap since I figure ESPN will have it down to a science by that time. I thought it was quite terrible when the CL went to FOX because the overall production is awful. Eric Wynalda is there to be an American Idol, No one on the face of the planet knows who Chris Sullivan, and poor Barton can’t get an intelligent word with those two around. I think this shift should be a warning shot to ESPN that maybe it’s time to throw in for the EPL rights.

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