When it comes to the future of the FA Cup television and streaming rights in the United States, the FA’s slogan for this season’s FA Cup tournament, “Nothing is Certain,” is quite apt.
FOX Sports deal with the Football Association (FA) for rights to the FA Cup in the US market expires at the end of this season. The competition it can be strongly argued has failed to benefit from the surging popularity of the Premier League in the United States thanks in large measure to being stuck on FOX’s family of networks while the league itself has enjoyed a boom since moving from FOX Soccer to NBC Sports in 2013.
Our World Soccer Talk sources understand that worldwide media broker IMG is exploring the idea of selling the US rights to the competition to a pay streaming service. Whether it is Amazon’s Prime Video platform, BAMTech or the soon-to-be launched ESPN Plus (or some other entity such as Facebook), it’s unclear as talks are still continuing at this time. perhaps including Facebook who has recently shown interest in acquiring rights to air soccer matches.
Amazon could be interested given that they are filming a behind-the-scenes documentary about Manchester City this season to air to Prime subscribers at a future date. Acquiring rights to a soccer competition on top of the exclusive documentary would be an ideal complement and an important building block as it continues to slowly acquire more rights to stream world sports.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on Turner Sports to see if it tries to picks up the FA Cup rights for a minimal fee and add it to the soon-to-be-launched pay service that will include all UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches not aired live on TNT, TBS or TruTV. Close to 80% of matches in Europe’s two largest continental club competitions will be behind a paywall for US viewers beginning in the 2018-19 season.
A World Soccer Talk source indicated the FA is impressed by the scope of the English Football League’s (EFL) deal with BAMTech that includes rights to the Carabao Cup. BAMTech has sub-licensed the rights to Disney-owned ESPN who have streamed on average four EFL Championship matches per round on ESPN3 in the United States in addition to streaming on average six to eight early stage Carabao Cup matches per round on ESPN3. The deal also gives the flexibility to move bigger matches to a larger platform as recent games involving the likes of Arsenal, Bristol City, Chelsea and Manchester City have been moved to ESPN2 or ESPN Deportes.
However the lure to The FA of BAMTech acquiring the FA Cup rights could be a mistake if all of the games available are placed behind the ESPN Plus paywall for the 2018/19 season onwards, thus reducing the visibility of the competition and not getting the same opportunity to feature a few select games on ESPN2 or ESPN Deportes as BAMTech has been doing this season for the League Cup.
In the last few years, the FA Cup Final from Wembley has been aired on the FOX broadcast network, which has given an increased exposure to what was once considered the biggest match of the year in English football. But the earlier stages of the tournament including this past weekend’s 4th Round have suffered from indifferent promotion by FOX Sports as well as a lack of interest from soccer fans. This is despite the reality that in most years, bigger clubs have advanced deep in the competition and each of the last four FA Cups have been won by either Arsenal or Manchester United, two of the most popular soccer clubs on American soil.
Much of the lack of interest in the competition’s earlier stages isn’t necessarily the fault of FOX Sports. Fewer and fewer teams are taking the FA Cup 3rd and 4th rounds seriously. While public perception and lazy narratives indicate it is just the top teams who take a lackadaisical attitude toward the early stages of the competition, in fact it’s just about every team in the Premier League who is either fighting for European qualification or against relegation as well as every Championship side fighting for promotion. As a result, many of the teams field weakened sides. For FOX Sports, they’ve had the opportunity to show some giant killings but often those matches involve heavily-rotated Premier League or Championship sides facing League One or League Two clubs.
The FA Cup once provided unmatched drama and fan interest, making the matches a strong complement to the general interest in English football that was growing in the United States. However, more recently with so much interest in the league itself as well as the unparalleled coverage NBC has provided, the FA Cup is an afterthought to many fans.
Also hampering FOX is the limitations on televised matches in the competition. Unable to offer the type of comprehensive coverage of multiple games at once that characterize most European football coverage in the US as well as the Carabao Cup on ESPN3, the FA Cup despite FOX’s best efforts seems to happen in isolation, in a vacuum. Given the tight programming schedule FS1 and FS2 already are under during the FA Cup early rounds due to college basketball and Bundesliga commitments, seeing FOX let the FA Cup go without much of a fight would not be shocking.
However, where the FA Cup lands next on American television or in the growing world of live sports on streaming platforms is anyone’s guess. FOX Sports remains a consideration, but Amazon, BAMTech, Turner Sports, Facebook and perhaps others certainly would love to add the FA Cup to whatever other properties they are able to bundle behind a paywall for US viewers.