The soccer world reacted with a combination of shock, sarcasm and guarded optimism on Friday afternoon when World Soccer Talk broke the news that Turner Sports — who has not broadcast soccer on TV since the folding of the WUSA in 2003 (which aired on TNT and the now-defunct CNNSI) and has not shown men’s soccer since the 1990 World Cup — had won the English-language rights to broadcast the UEFA Champions League in the United States from August 2018 until June 2021. FOX Sports, the current rights holder, will continue to broadcast the competition for the remainder of this season and next.
Reportedly, the bid by Turner Sports was nearly double that of the incumbent FOX Sports and BAMTech, which presumably as an entity partly owned by Disney would have aired matches on ESPN associated channels. NBC Sports, who broadcast the English Premier League — the most-popular soccer league among English-language audiences in the United States, submitted what Sports Business Journal described as a “token” bid.
The acquisition of these rights by Turner is potentially a massively positive development for the airing of soccer in the United States. Turner networks doesn’t broadcast the volume of live sports programming that experienced soccer broadcasters FOX, ESPN and NBC do. In spite of this or perhaps because of this reality, Turner Sports does a top shelf job of all the bigger sporting properties they have in their portfolio.
For many fans of European soccer in the United States, FOX Sports’s studio work around the UEFA Champions League has become patronizing and replaceable. Complaints among fans that FOX Sports uses the studio shows and pregame coverage to push storylines related to American soccer and MLS have been more frequent in recent months. However you view this cross-promotion strategy by FOX Sports — a network which it cannot be questioned has been committed more than perhaps any other to growing the American game — Turner is likely to take a different tact.
FOX has been the MLS and US Soccer rights holder for the majority of the time it broadcast the UEFA Champions League. It’s also been a network not only committed to hiring American talent, but using that talent on broadcasts of European soccer. Turner Sports might hire some of the same type of talent but is likely to eschew the type of MLS-centric or US Men’s National Team related discussions that tend to dominate coverage on FOX.
Creative studio work with memorable soundbites has been a hallmark of Turner’s basketball coverage both of the NBA and NCAA Tournament. It’s worth noting that Turner has no regular season NCAA coverage, with the bulk of games being on ESPN, FOX and CBS (depending on the conference). Yet Turner’s studio team is well=prepared and versed on college basketball. After a learning curve the first year, Turner Sports split NCAA Tournament rights with CBS in 2011. Since then, the Turner team has become very seasoned in the understanding of college basketball. UEFA Champions League presents a similar challenge as Turner will not broadcast any of the leagues that send clubs into the competition, leaving its talent to watch and study broadcasts on other networks (NBC and FOX) to develop a read on the competition.
Turner’s production of basketball has cutting-edge studio analysis but lacks the type of cutesy sound effects and loud, over-the-top graphics that have become a staple of FOX Sports’s soccer coverage. More than likely, the loud intros/outros to studio segments will go away under Turner.
In terms of talent at FOX Sports, losing Eric Wynalda potentially might be tough for viewers, but given that his role on non-Bundesliga FOX broadcasts seems to be minimal and he can hardly get a word in edgewise on the UCL pregame shows, he might be better off jumping to Turner. Rob Stone is unlikely to move to Turner as he has a critical role in college football and basketball coverage at the network. It will be critical for Turner to hire a studio host with Stone’s knowledge of soccer, which is easier said than done. Alexi Lalas would fit the Turner mold for studio broadcasts but is likely to stay with a network that has FIFA and MLS rights.
Turner might want to look to ESPN where the excellent duo of Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop could enhance any studio team (hint to NBC Sports as well). But it must be remembered that Turner is likely to base coverage in Atlanta rather than current FOX Sports locale of Los Angeles or Connecticut where NBC and ESPN broadcast from. As an aside, this further grows Atlanta as a destination for soccer coverage with Atlanta United currently launching in MLS with a much stronger following than many critics had anticipated (plus the likelihood of a new NASL club beginning play in the eastern suburbs next year).
Finally, a word about streaming. As someone who subscribes to FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 but constantly has trouble streaming FOX Sports Go (and thus misses most of Champions League because it does take place on weekday afternoons), Turner can only do better – and likely will.
A personal story – college basketball is the only other sport I follow closely besides soccer. But the sport was losing me in the late 2000’s as CBS’ monopoly on tournament coverage was substandard after a regular season where mainly ESPN but also FOX regional networks had made the sport super-accessible. It almost felt as if the conference tournaments were the end of the season. But Turner’s pioneering work in providing outstanding streaming coverage allowed viewers to watch any match online irrespective of what game was on a local CBS affiliate. It made the tournament more accessible and interesting. The streaming product was nearly flawless and it’s become much easier and fulfilling to watch weekday NCAA tournament games.
I believe Turner will similarly make the UEFA Champions League, which like many of the early round games of the NCAA Tournament takes place on weekday afternoons, accessible and easier to follow. It will also likely attract new fans with this ease of access on all devices.
The general reaction to Turner’s acquisition of UEFA Champions League rights has been positive. FOX Sports’s unpopularity with core soccer audiences creates an opening and will likely give Turner a honeymoon period, much as NBC enjoyed with the Premier League when they gained the rights from FOX Sports in 2013.
I believe Turner will do as well as NBC in redefining how European soccer can be covered in the United States.