By this Friday, several media corporations will have submitted their final bids for the US media rights to the 2013-16 Premier League seasons. To many, it may seem just like any other TV rights auction, but this one could have a major impact not only on the growth of the Premier League but also the rise in popularity of soccer in the United States.
Being the most popular English-language soccer league in the United States, the Premier League has enjoyed tremendous growth during the last five years. TV ratings have never been higher. The summer tours by English teams on American soil have never been more popular. Social media has been eating it up, and even the acronym EPL has become du jour in some circles.
All of the success and growth, however, could come to an abrupt halt next August. Depending on who wins the US media rights auction, our dependable access to the Premier League could come to an end. If beIN SPORT wins the rights, there’s no guarantee that every match will be available, and there’s no guarantee that every consumer will be able to access it via their TV provider (although beIN SPORT is working hard to negotiate and expand its distribution). At the same time, there are still plenty of question marks about the future of FOX Soccer with the much discussed FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 being rumored as future networks to replace FOX’s niche soccer and racing channels.
At the same time, depending on how much the winning bidder will pay for the rights, there’s the likelihood that we, as consumers, may end up paying more for the access to watch games beginning next season.
With so much riding on the line, we should anticipate that change is on the horizon — whether it’s the status quo or a new Premier League rights owner.
If FOX Soccer does lose the rights to the Premier League, you’re left with a network who has achieved most of its success as a direct result of being a go-to destination for Premier League followers in the United States. Without the Premier League, there’s little reason for FOX Soccer to exist as a solitary soccer network except for occasional mid-week Champions League and Europa League matches. With the Premier League for 2013-16, FOX Soccer would be well positioned to continue as THE soccer network in the United States, leading perfectly into the 2016 Women’s World Cup and building up to the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments, which FOX has the rights to.
Just as La Liga and Serie A have suffered a blow considering that its matches this season are not as accessible as in previous years, the Premier League could suffer the same fate beginning next season. Love them or hate them, FOX Soccer has raised the bar with its coverage of the Premier League, and has brought the game into the homes of 1 million+ more people thanks to its coverage on the free-to-air network alongside, gulp, its NFL coverage. That’s something that beIN SPORT cannot come close to achieving.
If beIN SPORT does acquire the rights to the Premier League in years 2013-16, it will give Major League Soccer (MLS) an advantage in the TV ratings war. Up until now, MLS has been suffering with low TV ratings on NBC Sports Network and the free-to-air NBC. But if the EPL gets acquired by beIN SPORT, MLS will certainly have a distinct advantage over the EPL nationwide when it comes to attracting the mainstream viewer. Whether they’ll tune in to MLS or not is entirely another matter.
So we sit at a crossroads where the future fate of the Premier League will decided by the close of business on Friday. I’m leaning to a FOX Soccer-ESPN bid, but the reality is that if beIN SPORT or another network acquired the rights, it would be a gamechanger for me and a lot of hardcore soccer fans. Seeing La Liga and Serie A move to beIN SPORT isn’t enough to convince me to change from Comcast to DirecTV. But if the Premier League rights were acquired by beIN SPORT, I would make the switch — even though there are several reasons why I’ve remained with Comcast for so long. While I’m sure some (or many) of you hardcore soccer fans would feel the same way, the biggest loss for Premier League soccer in the United States (if beIN SPORT acquired the rights) would be the casual fan. This would stem the growth of the league in the United States, and as a result of the league being hands-down the most entertaining and accessible in the world, I believe it would slow down the popularity of the sport of soccer in this country.
The bidding that concludes this Friday is that important. Let’s hope that whatever happens that it is for the betterment of the Premier League viewing experience in the United States of America. We’ve had it good for so long. Let’s hope it continues that way.