In the next five years, we are certain to see more volatility in the way soccer is broadcast and delivered to US audiences. As the broadcast and media industry in the United States continues to evolve in order to adjust to new realities in terms of audiences, it’s likely that change will be a common theme for the next several years as well as adding more confusing for consumers as they try to watch their favorite club, league or tournament. It will undoubtedly also get more expensive to be a soccer fan in the United States due to these changes.
This spring, ESPN Plus will launch with a $4.99/month price point. The service will include all MLS matches not on national television in the US. It is also likely to include USL, EFL Championship, League 1 and League 2 as well as the League Cup. While MLS broadcasts not offered nationally have always been on a pay platform, the other properties mentioned have been generally more accessible with a cable subscription or even simply by having a computer with internet access.
At the start of the new European season in August 2018, Turner Sports is expected to launch a new pay streaming service which will exclusively air close to 80% of matches from UEFA club competitions. When you factor in the costs of already existing services such as FOX Soccer Match Pass and the extra tier of cable that needs to be purchased to gain access to beIN SPORTS, the costs of being a soccer fan are growing rapidly. In addition, as of now, NBC Sports is expected to continue offering Premier League matches not broadcast on one of its networks via its pay NBC Sports Gold package.
As cable subscriptions drop and cord-cutting becomes more of the norm, especially since soccer fans in the US tend to fit the millennial demographic, more and more soccer matches are likely to be offered on internet-based, pay platforms.
Non-Liga MX and “Big Six” Premier League club football remains a niche in terms of the US sports market. But it’s a powerful niche with fans largely so passionate about the leagues and clubs they follow that they are willing to go to great lengths to watch matches and bumper programming legally even, as we have seen at an additional cost.
Looking over the horizon it is entirely possible the low ratings non-US Women’s and Men’s National Team soccer programming gets on FS1 and FS2 will lead to the network dropping Bundesliga coverage outright and eventually after 2022 placing more MLS games on its online platform exclusively. The sale of FOX’s regional sports channels to Disney also limits the need to have broadcasts of soccer programming. For the last several years, Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League reruns have often been used to fill dead air on these networks.
ESPN might very well drop out of the soccer business entirely on television outside of UEFA internationals and US games if they are not forced to show MLS matches to secure US rights. The resignation of John Skipper as ESPN’s President has been underplayed by soccer aficionados, but could have a devastating impact on the presence of the sport on America’s flagship sports network. Skipper dragged ESPN’s programming into the modern era by emphasizing soccer content, but in the post-Skipper era which is coinciding with the launch of ESPN Plus, the nightly ESPN FC news program might be the only regular soccer-centric content on the network in 2023.
NBC Sports should retain rights to the Premier League after the expiry of the current rights deal in May 2022, but chances of the league securing a higher fee for the US market than the current 6 year/$1bn package is unlikely. As ratings have only slightly improved for the Premier League since NBC signed its latest deal, the expectation for fans should be that the network continues to try and recoup portions of the inflated fee it paid for the product through its NBC Sports Gold product. However, given the sloppy rollout and PR troubles it cost NBC in year one of Premier League Pass, the cost of this service is likely to remain a flat $50 a season or somewhere in the neighborhood of that price point.
As for beIN SPORTS, either the network will have to try and increase its cable package distribution and online product or might simply exit the US market when the current rights deals expire. Parent company Al Jazeera abandoned its US news network two years ago and has found much more success with the BeIN brand in other markets. Turner Sports could pick up the rights to La Liga and make it a largely digital product, which would compliment its aforementioned soon-to-be-launched program.
Will Univision make a play for more European leagues to fill programming on Univision Deportes? It already has the UEFA Champions League and Europa League for 2018/19 onwards. Potentially, with complete control now of Liga MX US rights, the network will be able to pick and choose where to continue to empire build.
The real x-factors going forward will be the efforts of Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, go90, Facebook and Twitter. Amazon and Netflix already have dipped into the market of making original documentary content about European football and both are likely at some point to bid on a live rights package – in fact Amazon might do so in the very near future for the UK market. YouTube has previously aired USL games and this season YouTube TV has an exclusive local pay deal with MLS’ LAFC. Facebook Live has aired UEFA Champions League games this season in cooperation with FOX and Twitter broadcast matches from NASL’s San Francisco Deltas during the team’s 2017 championship-winning campaign. Both Facebook and Twitter are likely to try and continue to gain access to content, with Facebook likely securing more lucrative content, perhaps even the Bundesliga when FOX inevitably dumps it from its cable channels. The big question here is whether Facebook and Twitter will start charging a premium for streaming live events, since we’ve already seen YouTube is willing to dispense with its previously free model to air live matches.
Ultimately those who provide soccer content to cord-cutters at an affordable rate like Sling TV and FuboTV might prove to be the biggest winners. As Sling, Fubo and other similar services make deals to gain the content and perhaps offer the streaming services as part of their premium packages, they can raise prices that yet seem affordable for the average fan – giving consumers an easier way to accumulate access to all the content they want at what might seem a relatively reasonable cost.
When it comes to projecting the future of the soccer broadcast business in the US, one thing is for certain – the industry is evolving away from a TV-centric model toward a more streaming-oriented one using paid services.