Why truTV may be Turner Sports’ ticket to UEFA Champions League success

While many English-language sportswriters and sports business reporters in the U.S. were caught by surprise by Turner Sports’ $180 million winning bid for the U.S. English-language media rights for the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League for August 2018-May 2021, this seemingly bold move by Turner Sports appears to this long-time observer of the U.S. sports media business to be part of a plan that was formulated by Turner Sports executives at the start of this decade.

Ever since Turner Sports won the rights in April 2010 to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament in a joint bid with CBS Sports, Turner Sports has been looking for another sports TV product with a predominately young male audience (ages 18-34) to bolster truTV, which aired its first live sports event with four “First Four” basketball games from University of Dayton Arena in March 2011. (Some readers may recall that former British Prime Minister David Cameron attended one of the “First Four” basketball games in Dayton as a guest of former U.S. President Barack Obama, and that Cameron alluded to the similarities between the NCAA basketball tournament and the English F.A. Cup in an interview conducted by truTV basketball co-commentator Clark Kellogg.)

Sportswriter Jon Wilner of San Jose Mercury News wrote the following on March 11, 2011 in his College Hotline blog:

Turner’s involvement with the NCAA Tournament — specifically: its interest in building TruTV — indicates that it may come to the negotiating table (for PAC-12 Conference media rights), perhaps with a partner.

Described by one source as being “as hungry as anyone,” Turner is well aware (through its experience with the NBA on TBS/TNT) that showing live sports content allows it to charge more for subscriber fees.

Having one week of college basketball on truTV each year is clearly NOT enough for Time Warner, the parent company of Turner Broadcasting and Turner Sports, to charge a premium monthly subscriber fee for truTV, in comparison to Turner Broadcasting’s entertainment TV channels with live sports coverage, namely TNT, which airs National Basketball Association regular season and playoff games, and TBS which airs Major League Baseball regular season and playoff games:

Source: SNL Kagan

Since 2011, Turner Sports had several opportunities to submit bids for video rights to sports properties with young male audiences, namely “Power 5” college football and basketball products, but Turner Sports had not been successful in landing the rights to any of those properties.

However, a shift in programming priorities at FOX Sports, which held the U.S. English-language (and Spanish-language) video rights to the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League since August 2009, gave Turner Sports the opening to land a live sports TV product to bolster truTV.

Specifically, FOX Sports hired former NBC and ESPN production executive Jamie Horowitz to run FOX Sports’ English-language U.S. networks FS1 and FS2. Horowitz, who was credited with launching “manufactured debate” sports talk programs at the ESPN networks such as First Take and SportsNation, spent millions of dollars to hire sports talk talent away from competitors. High-profile talent hired by Horowitz include Colin Cowherd (who moved his show The Herd to air on FS1 on weekdays at 12 noon-3pm Eastern Time starting September 2015) and Doug Gottlieb (who has signed with FOX Sports to move his show from CBS Sports Network to FS1 on weekdays at 3pm-6 pm Eastern Time starting April 24, 2017.)

With FOX Sports having committed sizable programming and talent investments to build FS1 as a destination for sports talk and manufactured debate shows on weekday afternoons, this observer believes that the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League properties no longer make any sense for FOX Sports, from both a financial perspective and a programming perspective.

After all, why would FOX Sports want to spend another $50-60 million each year for the two UEFA club properties, which would conflict with both the Colin Cowherd and Doug Gottlieb shows and would force FS1 to preempt both shows 42 times each season?

With the knowledge that FOX Sports executives would NOT make a large bid for the U.S. English-language video rights to the two UEFA club properties, Turner Sports executives acted on the perfect opportunity to grab a live sports TV product with a young demographic that will allow Time Warner to raise monthly subscribe fee for truTV.

If Time Warner were able to raise the monthly subscriber fee for truTV by six cents each month, from $0.10 to $0.16, then Time Warner will be able to generate an additional $62.4 million in annual subscriber fee to pay for the U.S. English-language video rights to the UEFA club properties:

$0.06 /subscriber/month x 12 months/year x 86.8 million subscribers = $62.4 million/year

Readers should be able to convince themselves that Turner Sports will most likely put on truTV the best UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches in both the 1pm Eastern (new for the UEFA Champions League starting August 2018) and the 3pm Eastern time slots, namely those matches featuring billion-dollar starting lineups by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and big English Premier League clubs with proven audience drawing power in the U.S. such as Manchester United.

As for the secondary matches in each time slot, this observer believes that Turner Sports will put those matches on HLN, the channel formerly known as Headline News. Ever since re-branding Headline News into HLN in 2014 to target the “social media generation”, Turner Broadcasting has tried several programming initiatives, one of which was to put live sports programming on HLN for the first time in 2016 when Turner Sports used HLN to provide “overflow” coverage of NBA playoff games to HLN when the first game of a scheduled doubleheader on TNT ran over its allotted time.

While some readers of this article may be disappointed that Turner Sports is NOT likely, in my opinion, to use either TNT or TBS for UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League coverage, readers should be able to understand why Turner Sports would rather put the UEFA club properties on truTV and HLN. The reasons are similar to the reasons why ESPN put the UEFA Champions League on ESPN2 instead of ESPN in 1994-2005, and why FOX Sports moved the best UEFA Champions League matches from the FOX Sports regional networks and FX to FOX Soccer Channel shortly after FOX Sports started coverage of the UEFA Champions League in 2008.

As for the production aspects, because Turner Sports already has experience running NBA TV (under contract with the NBA) on a tight budget by taking the commentary feeds from various regional sports networks instead of sending its own talent to live NBA games airing on NBA TV, one would expect Turner Sports to follow that model with the UEFA club properties by using the world feeds produced by the production company under contract with UEFA. FOX Sports has been using those world feeds from London-based Input Media for the UEFA Champions League since August 2015 (after Sky Sports lost the rights in the U.K.).

One of the strengths of Turner Sports has always been its studio shows. Specifically, the studio shows for NBA on TNT with Emmy Award-winning host Ernie Johnson, Jr. and an A-List cast of rotating studio analysts such as Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal, are widely perceived to be the gold standard for studio shows on U.S. sports television.

One would expect Turner Sports to devote significant resources to build its studio show for the UEFA Champions League property. Many English-speaking candidates with experience playing in the UEFA Champions League now live in the U.S. are available for Turner Sports to select as pundits.

SEE MORE: Who Turner Sports should hire for Champions League TV coverage

As for the studio host for the UEFA Champions League on Turner Sports, even though Johnson was involved with TNT’s coverage of FIFA World Cup 1990, this observer does NOT believe Turner Sports executives will ask Johnson to take on the additional duties, primarily because Johnson is way too busy with his excellent work on NBA on TNT.

This observer believes that Turner Sports will select a young presenter, likely under the age of 35, with significant on-camera experience with major international soccer as a studio host, news presenter, interviewer, and correspondent. Turner Sports can choose from many candidates, both male and female, many of whom are already based in the U.S.
One very strong candidate for this studio host position was hired by Turner Broadcasting less than two years ago to anchor World Sport on CNN International and CNN Airport Network.

English-American sports TV news presenter Kate Riley moved to Atlanta to join CNN in June 2015, after having worked for Sky Sports, Premier League Productions/IMG Sports Media, and the BBC among other media outlets in the U.K. Riley was born in Bakersfield, California to an English father and an American mother. She spent her teenage years in Ipswich, England; she studied Geography at Leicester University; and she earned her master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Cardiff University in Wales.

Readers can watch Kate Riley’s recent work for CNN on the news channel’s website. Plus, Riley has posted on YouTube her demo reel from 2015, featuring her work for Sky Sports and BBC.

Riley also posted a video clip of her ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 on YouTube. This video clip should give the reader an idea of Riley’s personality.

If Turner Sports were to follow the recent trend of major U.S. sports media outlets hiring young female studio hosts with significant experience covering major international soccer (examples include Rebecca Lowe at NBC Sports, Kate Abdo at FOX Sports, and Kay Murray at beIN SPORTS) then Riley is obviously the odds-on favorite for the role of studio host for UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League coverage for Turner Sports, as Riley is already employed by Turner Broadcasting.

This observer puts the probability of Riley being offered the studio host role by Turner Sports for UEFA Champions League coverage at 80%.

If Riley were indeed given the additional duties, then her selection by Turner Sports executives would certainly generate news headlines.