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.