Turner Sports’ announcement on Thursday regarding how it’ll distribute the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League for the next seasons will have one major impact — it’s going to cost soccer fans more to watch the Beautiful Game than ever before.
In 2018, Turner Sports will launch a new online sports platform where about 80% of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League games will be aired during the 2018-2019 competitions. The price for this as-of-yet-unnamed streaming service hasn’t been disclosed, as of press time. But the net effect will be that it’ll cost soccer fans to pay more to watch what they’ve been accustomed to seeing on TV.
The Turner networks will offer four UEFA Champions League games a week during the group stage on truTV, which as of July 2017 is in 87 million households. This is greater distribution than the current primary rights carrier FS1. But for the matches where we’ve been accustomed to seeing them available via FOX on FS2, ESPN2 or the FOX Sports Regional Networks, Turner will place those behind the OTT sports platform paywall.
Most knockout stage matches will be aired as well on truTV but critically some will fall to the OTT sports platform. The semifinals and finals will be shown on TBS or TNT.
Except for the final, UEFA Europa League matches will be placed entirely behind the OTT sports platform paywall, which is a massive change for fans accustomed to getting between two to four matches a week live-to-air on FS1 and/or FS2, as well as other games across the ESPN networks.
When FOX acquired the UEFA Champions League and Europa League rights, they were in a different place compared to Turner Sports today. FOX needed programming to fill the schedule of FS1 and FS2. And UEFA competitions have provided live midweek sports action to air on dedicated sports channels since 2013. Turner, on the other hand, does not have a dedicated sports channel in its portfolio and is using these types of properties to build it’s pay service and build relevance to Bleacher Report’s website.
Additionally, the UEFA Super Cup will be shown on TBS or TNT.
Today’s announcement by Turner Sports continues a trend for soccer properties to be placed behind streaming pay walls. Earlier this summer, NBC Sports announced the move of about a third of the Premier League matches previously available with a cable subscription on Premier League Extra Time or the NBC Sports App to an annual subscription package. BAMTech acquired the rights to the English Championship and have taken matches previously on-air via beIN SPORTS and placed them on ESP3 for this season, but next year they very well might place these matches on Disney’s new streaming service.
“The launch of Turner’s new OTT sports platform and partnership with UEFA aligns with the company’s continued strategy to further expand the distribution ecosystem and our ongoing commitment to engage fans with premium content they crave across all platforms,” said David Levy, President, Turner. “These highly-anticipated matches and supplemental original programming will be a key foundation for our latest direct to consumer business sports offering, as well as coveted content for Bleacher Report and our leading television networks. In addition to the new audiences we’ll attract through the streaming service, the partnership will leverage the tremendous reach we have with our television networks and Bleacher Report’s position as the leading digital destination for millennial fans.”
Levy’s statement lays out Turner’s thinking with regards to this property. However his quote may convey a basic misunderstanding of the expectations of American-based English-language dominant soccer fans who for the last few years have had easy access to matches via FOX Sports and ESPN networks. The Turner strategy also assumes that millennials will embrace a pay service despite research indicating that large portions of soccer fans are turning to illegal streams. The network also hopes to leverage this property into increased traffic from soccer fans and millennials to Bleacher Report, something FOX failed to do with its own, more established soccer web presence.
Bleacher Report will have access to ancillary video content from UEFA much the same way FOXSports.com currently does. It is also assumed the current programming FS1 and FS2 shows related to UEFA competitions will either end up behind the OTT paywall or on the Bleacher Report site.
Turner Sports announcement pours some cold water on the excitement many soccer fans felt months ago when it was reported that incumbent FOX Sports had lost the UEFA club competition rights. FOX’s coverage has been a lightning rod for fans and the assumption is Turner could and would do better in its presentation style and commentary. However, given the amount of money Turner invested in the property, it was perhaps inevitable that like NBC, they would seek to recoup part of this investment in selling a pay service to soccer fans.
Unfortunately, the bigger picture from all of this means less soccer is going to ultimately be available on your television and the cost of being a hardcore fan of the sport in the country just went up, again. The balance between cable television and digital pay platforms continues to evolve in this era of cord-cutting. It is very possible NBC Sports, Disney/ESPN, Turner and other distributors will find a model that allows them to bring high-level soccer competitions into our homes economically in this era. But it also without question means for those with traditional cable packages, you are going to be paying more and more to watch soccer and follow your favorite clubs.