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What’s Next for ESPN’s Soccer Strategy?

ESPN’s track record of trying to acquire soccer TV rights during the first quarter of 2009 has been abysmal.

First, ESPN pulled out of the bidding at the last minute for the European TV rights to the Bundesliga. In February, ESPN lost the Premier League TV rights in the UK to Sky Sports and Setanta. Then this month alone, ESPN suffered the double whammy of losing the Champions League TV rights in the United States and Central and South America to Fox Sports.

Next up for ESPN is the U.S. rights to the Premier League, due to be finalized in April, 2009. Will ESPN make it zero for five in 2009, or are they lying in wait to capture the big kahuna?

Really, no one really knows how serious ESPN is about the TV rights to the Premier League. They’ll face stiff competition from Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports who will both be reluctant to let go of the Premier League. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to money and if ESPN can bid more, then the Premier League crown will be theirs.

If so, ESPN’s coverage would begin immediately after the 2010 World Cup (also aired on ESPN), and the Premier League would be the perfect opportunity to dovetail its huge ratings into a new season of Premier League soccer.

But rumors of budget cuts at ESPN may curtail the Disney-owned company from bidding an excessive amount of money for the league.

One additional wrinkle to the deal is that ESPN may allow distributors to swap ESPN Classic for ESPN U, it’s college network.

According to SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN execs are “set to allow cable and satellite distributors to swap” ESPN Classic for ESPNU, which they “hope presents a newer, hipper alternative to Classic’s staid, dated programming,” according to John Ourand. The proposal would allow operators “to move ESPN Classic to a sports tier, where it would be ESPN’s first channel to reside on the traditionally low-penetrated mantle.” The net also is “looking for added distribution” for both ESPN Deportes and ESPN360 as part of the offer. ESPN Classic currently is in “more than 63 million homes, typically on analog and digital basic tiers,” while ESPNU is in “about 25 million homes, mainly on digital basic tiers, and ESPN Deportes is in fewer than 5 million homes.” ESPN Classic was “once a viewer favorite for its extensive library and Emmy-winning documentaries,” but it has “seen its viewer numbers drop sharply in the last three years.” The channel in ’08 averaged 74,000 viewers in primetime, down 31% from 107,000 viewers in ’07. Ourand writes a deal “clearly would mostly help ESPNU, which is battling another collegiate sports channel, CBS College Sports Network, for carriage deals on the nation’s cable and satellite systems.” ESPN execs have “spent the last several weeks pitching this plan to cable operators,” but talks are “expected to heat up this week” at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s annual Cable Show in DC.

So, if ESPN Classic is going to become less of a priority for ESPN, what does that say about the network’s soccer strategy where many of the overflow games and soccer repeats are shown on ESPN Classic? The news doesn’t bode well.

What’s your opinion about ESPN’s recent failed attempts to get more soccer programming, and what the chances are of the network winning the Premier League bid in April? Click the comments link below and share your opinion.

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  1. John

    May 4, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    If you think FSC is going to be carried on Digital Basic, you are crazy. The network has never achieved one-tenth of a national ratings point (one-tenth of one percent of the tv universe). It’s highest rated coverage area rating was a 0.43 (43-hundredths of one percent of their 36MM distribution).

    ESPN will get more unique viewers for Sunday night poker this week, than FSC will have unique viewers all year.

  2. Bob

    April 2, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Well, now that Fox has won Champions League rights I think this changes the situation completely. Fox told reporters on Wednesday that part of the point of this purchase was to increase FSC’s availability. With the purchase, HD is *definitely* coming to FSC, and I’d imagine (or at least, wishfully hoping) that this means Fox Soccer Channel will give itself a new look. God, it’s on screen graphics are so ugly. I mean, it makes sense. Fox Soccer Channel has clearly been given low budgets by Mr. Murdoch, but with the acquiring of the Champions League, it would be a poor business decisoin for News Corp not to give FSC a much much higher budget.

    With that in mind, if ESPN dropped MLS after 5 more seasons, who cares? MLS will sitll be on FSC and if the Champions League does make FSC more available, then MLS is in a win win situation. It can either stay on ESPN, or stay on FSC, which by a certain point I would think would be equal in accessibility.

    As for ESPN, man, are they screwing up. Perhaps they are going all in for the EPL now, but I dunno. ESPN has a lot of money, but so does Rupert Murdoch. Imagine Fox just cutting out all of ESPN’s soccer coverage…that would be insane.

  3. olivert

    March 31, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    FOX broadcast network is committed to Major League Baseball on Saturday afternoons.

    FX is the next best option for the 2010 UEFA Champions League Final: over 90 million households cleared, with only two signal feeds (East and West) to clear.

    Putting the UEFA Champions League final on the regional sports networks affiliated with FOX Sports Net is not the answer because of conflicts with live regional sports.

  4. scott smith

    March 31, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Nascar fans would not like that. Would not understand offsides. Man on to them might mean something else.

  5. J

    March 31, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Why beat around the bush? Why cant they show it on Fox? Are they too worried people will miss there midday I Love Lucy rerun?

  6. scott smith

    March 31, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    ESPN do a good job with the champions league because they show Man U. However, I have seen how they have destroyed the commentating on MLS matches. I’d rather mute and MLS game and listen to my 16 mos old son. To show the final on FX would be great. Always costs me $20 to watch the final. Need more international matches.

  7. J

    March 31, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Hopefully ESPN wins the EPL tv rights.

  8. Eladio

    March 31, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    “Fox Soccer to get it all! Otherwise US fan will be watching games at 2AM.”

    I hope they don’t “get it all”…Being able to keep Setanta on board means more games as well. If it was all on FSC, you’d be stuck watching tape-delayed games half the time. That’s still better than if ESPN got it, but not as good as now, where not only Setanta will show a game at 10:00 am (ET), but often times has a 2nd game game on their Setanta Alternate channel (through DirecTV, anyway). So in MY perfect world, I can see 3 EPL games at the same time.

  9. The Gaffer

    March 31, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    The latest rumor is that Fox is contemplating showing the final on FX, so that would definitely give it a huge audience on a Saturday afternoon.

    The Gaffer

  10. Juan-John

    March 31, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    The problem for ESPN in losing the Champions League right now is that it comes at an awful time: right before the switchover to a SATURDAY date for the final. That fact ALONE will most likely help increase viewership in the Western Hemisphere beyond anyone’s expectations, and if Fox is smart, they’ll air that game on the REGULAR Fox local over-the-air affiliate channels for more exposure.

  11. tony

    March 31, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Football is never a priority to espn. On fox, gol, and setanta I have the assurance that in most cases, I can watch the game again if my dvr messes up or it doesn’t record. Espn plays the games exactly once. Until Espn creates 2 dedicated football channels, it’s bad for the fans.

  12. Gaz

    March 31, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Fox Soccer to get it all! Otherwise US fan will be watching games at 2AM.

    I doubt ESPN is serious enough to actually put up enough cash to get it though.

  13. James

    March 31, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I first started watching ESPN in 1988. I used to love watching the first rounds of March Madness on ESPN. Still to this day CBS can’t match the artistry and ability ESPN showed in broadcasting that tournament all those years ago. So I’m a fan and always will be. But I want ESPN out of broadcasting soccer.

    The only benefit of having ESPN broadcasting soccer is the possibility of watching it in HD. But that’s more than offset by the probability that if ESPN had sole exclusive right to the Premiership we’d be lucky to get one game per week on their dazzling array of channels.

    Now that I’m lucky enough to have the holy grail of soccer channels – Setanta and FSC (and GolTV) – I absolutely love that I get pretty much every game that’s played in the league. With ESPN at the helm, that variety and choice would almost certainly be gone.

    ESPN has been terrible over the years with their broadcasts, or lack thereof, of the Champions League. Having rights to the EPL would be a nightmare.

  14. olivert

    March 31, 2009 at 10:09 am

    One should be able to read the “tea leaves” by now: ESPN will probably not have live expensive European soccer video (TV, internet, mobile) products for the U.S. market during the next 3-year contract cycle.

    That means no EPL for ESPN either, especially we now know that Mr. Murdoch is willing to risk losing money by bidding big (as FOX did for the UEFA Champions League), whereas ESPN is not.

    I would not be surprised if ESPN were to eventually walk away from the bidding for the U.S. video rights to Euro 2012 as well even though ESPN is the incumbent which held the rights to Euro 2008 in the U.S., Canada, and Caribbean/Latin America ex-Brazil.

    Once ESPN has make the decision to de-emphasize ESPN Classic by moving it to the digital Sports Packs on cable/satellite, there is really no room for expensive European soccer on any of ESPN’s expanded basic channels ESPN, ESPN2, and soon ESPNU on Saturdays in order to justify bidding big for EPL. ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU are already overloaded with U.S. college football and college basketball from August through early March.

    ESPN’s 8-year deal with MLS has “review points” along the way. At the last “review point” after the 2008 season, ESPN chose to yank MLS off the Thursday night East Coast prime time slot on ESPN2 and ESPN chose not to purchase any more time on ABC (the 2009 MLS Cup Final will be on ESPN instead). The next logical review point for the ESPN-MLS del will be after the 2010 season. I would not be surprised if that deal were modified prior to the start of the 2011 season.

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