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How ESPN Could Get the Champions League Back — And Much More

Earlier this morning, our friend The Gaffer lamented that ESPN’s loss of the UEFA Champions League TV rights would be bad for soccer in America. After all, ESPN remains the primary vehicle for sporting culture in this country, and if the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” suddenly doesn’t care enough to keep this planet’s biggest club football competition on its networks, then what hope does soccer have of becoming more than a niche sport here?

You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe the final chapter has been written in this story just yet. ESPN has not lost interest in soccer, nor has it forgotten the ratings success and critical praise it garnered from EURO 2008. What ESPN might be doing, though, is getting ready to acquire the broadcast rights to the Champions League, the Premier League, the Europa League and much, much more, by making only one move — buying out Setanta Sports.

This is not a new rumor, to be sure, but we should examine ESPN’s recent manuevers to get a better understanding of the bigger picture. First, let’s establish this: the notion that ESPN could not afford the rights to the Champions League because of the sagging economy is complete and utter bollocks…

According to this New York Times article by Richard Sandomir, ESPN earns a whopping $4.3 billion from cable and satellite subscribers every year. This not only insulates ESPN from economic hardship, but it gives the WWL a huge war chest that it can use to outbid any other network for any sports property it wants to air. ESPN recently outbid Fox for the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series by more than $100 million. If ESPN wanted to take the Olympics from NBC or the NCAA Basketball Championship from CBS, it could. No problem.

Setanta Sports, meanwhile, is not swimming in these Olympic-sized pools of cash. Last month, the Telegraph reported that Setanta was busy renegotiating all of its TV deals because it was struggling to make payments. This cash-poor position makes Setanta a prime takeover target for a monolith like ESPN.

Buying Setanta Sports also gives the WWL a huge inventory of broadcast rights — including the Champions League and the Premier League — which would have been far more expensive if bought separately. Plus, ESPN would get the infrastructure it needs to broadcast the games and, perhaps more importantly, all that on-air talent — Jon Champion, Paul Dempsey, Pat Dolan, James Richardson, and many, many more. This would be a huge boost for the WWL’s football coverage in the USA, and it would help it establish a stronger foothold overseas.

But where would ESPN put all these games, you ask? That’s where this article from Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal comes in:

Executives in Bristol are set to allow cable and satellite distributors to swap ESPN’s classic sports channel for its college network, ESPNU, which they hope presents a newer, hipper alternative to Classic’s staid, dated programming…

An interesting wrinkle to ESPN’s 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.

On the surface, this is a smart move for the WWL, as ESPN Classic’s ratings have dwindled in recent years, and having its own college sports network on standard cable and satellite tiers would allow it to compete with similar offerings from CBS and the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, about a year ago, Ives Galarcep let slip that ESPN was thinking of converting Classic into an international sports channel, with the Premier League as its top draw. (On a side note, I got Ives into a little bit of trouble with ESPN after I quoted his blog for that FanHouse piece, which proved to me that there was some truth to that rumor. I do hope he’s forgiven me since then.)

By purchasing Setanta, ESPN could have that international channel right away and, with minimal conversion, drop it into the spot currently occupied by Classic, thus putting it on the same sports tiers where Fox Soccer Channel and GOLTV currently reside.

The end result would give soccer fans all the matches they can handle on one tier, without having to shell out the extra $15 a month for Setanta. It would also bring the Champions League back to ESPN, who could very easily put those games back on ESPN2 to grab those casual viewers — complete with bumpers encouraging everyone to contact their cable and satellite companies right now to get the all-new ESPN International for even more soccer action.

So don’t lament the loss of the beautiful game on ESPN just yet. The WWL may have lost the Champions League final, but it hasn’t given up on soccer. It’s just setting us up for the perfect through ball.

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  1. Footballer

    April 23, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Hey Jesse, just call it football. You know that this game is the one and only sport that should be known as football

  2. Jesse

    April 13, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Setanta is not a well known brand of any sort in the US, except for Soccer fans and perhaps those that frequent UK-oriented pubs/gastropubs. I personally don’t have any friends that are Association Football fans, so if I asked any of them about Setanta they would look at me cluelessly. I would venture most would think I was talking about Santana (e.g. Carlos Santana’s band)…

    That being said, yeah, it’s not very well known here. The cost and the fact that its not on most cable networks prevents people being exposed to AF.

    My personal hope is that ESPN can buy Setanta and make AF more mainstream here in the US. It’s a shame that the vast majority of Americans are biased against “soccer.” I’ll be the first to admit that even though I’m a sports-nut and have been since I was about six years old (obsessed with baseball, american football, basketball, and college sports), I was completely biased against AF/Soccer. It wasn’t until I went to London at Xmas 2007 that I really watched a game or considered it viable to watch. My wife and I sat in a pub in Kensington and drank and watched a match and I really enjoyed it. I really think that if more Americans actually sat and watched a game unbiased (alcohol helps too) they’d really enjoy it. I’ve been trying to get a friend of mine to watch, but I’d need to get him to watch a 5-4 or 4-3 match for him to even consider watching. Americans unfortunately are so used to offense in sports, that a thrilling 1-0 or 1-1 tie (GASP!) would turn off most casual or potential fans. It does in baseball.

  3. Dave

    April 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Is Setanta a well known brand in the US and around the world? and do they hold the rights to the EPL in the US?

    ESPN did put a bid in for the one of the packages to be broadcast in the UK but they lost out to Sky Sports, our biggest sports broadcaster.

    There have been many rumours about ESPN taking over Setanta but to date nothing has materialised. Setanta even went to the trouble of displaying a one off billboard directly outside of ESPN UK offices stating 3 million customers, but this still did not entice them!

    ESPN is the only sports broadcaster who has the deep pockets to take on Sky Sports, and to beat them they would have to dig deep, without its football rights Sky would struggle and they would fight tooth and nail to keep them.

  4. Tesfay

    April 11, 2009 at 3:50 am

    i completely agree with the idea that the champions league title is in the hand of man utd. I am not telling you this coz i an man utd’s fan but it is from the real thing that we can see how man utd players deal with it and how they can be fit for any opponent they face.
    about 90% of the clubs that are going to meet in the final are
    Man Utd vs Barcelona

  5. Lud

    April 10, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Yeah Setanta on DirecTV satellite service in the US is an extra $50 a month iirc. I have mixed feelings about ESPN taking over Setanta as it would likely mean an end to their rugby, gaelic sports, and aussie-rules coverage, but at the same time a more affordable international sports channel wit Tommy Smyth and the bhoys would be cool with me.

  6. Matthew

    April 10, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    This is great for US subscribers and it may well happen if Setanta does indeed go belly up, but for Canadians this could be the worst of all possible worlds. At present TSN (EPSN’s affiliate in Canada) frequently preempts Champions League soccer for anything from Curling to Skiing to Junior Hockey. What they would do with the Premier League or FA Cup I shudder to think.

    Plus as a Rogers Subscriber I don’t even get TSN 2 which I assume they would try to dump soccer onto. The basic reality is that soccer is nothing more than an afterthought to those clowns, so keep Setanta going in Canada I say, along with Circuit City!

  7. olivert

    April 10, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    ESPN is planning to BURY ESPN Classic (by relegating it from digital basic cable to the sports pack) instead of trying to fix it (by putting content that viewers would want to watch).

    That should have been a “tell” for you.

    I do NOT believe ESPN, Inc. will put in a serious bid for EPL video rights in the U.S.

    I also believe that if ESPN, Inc. were to swallow up Setanta Sports Limited in a distressed situation, what is now known as “Setanta Sports USA” will remain a $15-20/month premium channel with an ESPN brand name, i.e. “ESPN World”.

  8. Jesse

    April 10, 2009 at 8:43 am

    I would be ecstatic if this were to happen. I just started watching the great game of football about a year ago. If there’s one thing that frustrates me is that I cannot get Setanta at my house. I have Time Warner Cable and they do not offer Setanta. I previously had DirecTV at every other place I’ve live in the past like 7 years, but my new house has too many old growth trees to get DTV.

    Like many of the articles I’ve read here, I’m one of the many who cannot get the programming I want some of the time (I get FSC and there’s an English pub I go to on weekends for Setanta if its open that early). So, I resort to watching EPL/UCL games online. If ESPN buys Setanta (which I’m crossing my fingers and praying for), I won’t have to go this route for most of the games I want.

  9. Jay

    April 10, 2009 at 2:02 am

    Make it happen!

  10. joejoejoe

    April 10, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Tony – I wasn’t questioning you or contradicting you, just making a point about the bigger picture. I forget what I’m paying for sometimes. I lease my wireless router from the broadband cable company and never really price out whether it’s worth it or not but I think of the router as free and my broadband as costing X.

  11. Tony

    April 9, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    @ Joe. You knew what I meant – it is “free” in the sense that it is not a premium channel that you have to pay for on top of your basic package.

  12. joejoejoe

    April 9, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Regular ESPN is NOT free. It’s just that you don’t see the cost because it’s folded into your basic cable bill or satellite bill. ESPN doesn’t get that $4.3 billion from the tooth fairy. People who watch ESPN’s basic programming pay for it, every month.

    Eventually basic cable is going to face the same pressure from the internet that newspapers face, people will find value in aggregating their own programming through other means (the internet, mobile devices). ESPN’s worst nightmare is people stop seeing that $60 a month spent on some kind of TV and start seeing it as X dollars to spend on all kinds of media. That would cut into their $4.3 billion in annual fees rather quickly.

  13. Dave Warner

    April 9, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Setanta Sport Holdings Ltd. is a private company. There might be a few regulatory hurdles, but I can’t imagine they would be too great for Disney-owned ESPN to overcome. Setanta doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on sports in the UK and Ireland.

    As for rugby/AFL/GAA, there’s no way an ESPN-owned Setanta will abandon those sports — not if it wants to keep its British and Irish subscribers happy, anyway. Football is the prize here, though, and what might happen is that we’ll see more football on this new ESPN Int’l channel in America, while some of the other sports get relegated to ESPN 360 and PPV. Let’s not forget, also, that die-hard rugby union and AFL fans already have alternatives to ESPN.

    BTW, Setanta boasts three million subscribers on its web site. It does not say “Setanta North America” has that many subscribers. I could be VERY generous and say that 1/3 of those subscribers are in the US. That’s $15M a month generated by American subscribers. Right now, ESPNU is in 25M homes. At that rate, ESPN could charge $0.60 per sub — which is probably *less* than what it’s actually getting — and end up with the same amount each month. The ESPN brand has total command over this space. Plus, it could remain a pay channel overseas.

  14. Tony

    April 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    This would be a *fantastic* move in my opinion. I resent paying an extra $15/month for Setanta and/or FSC, when ESPN is free on my DirecTV subscription. I will also miss Champy League in HD. This would really open up European soccer for the US masses and give us quicker access to the holy grail – EPL in HD!

    You have to wonder how long Setanta can last – in the UK they are now limited to 1 of the 6 EPL packages and charge in the region of $20/month for this privilege (and still in SD)!

  15. W

    April 9, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Interesting. Is Setanta a publicly traded company? Buy buy buy their stock!! Just kidding……..or not!

  16. Myopian

    April 9, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    question is … buying setanta would bring up a complicated regulatory puzzle across a bunch of countries without the FCC rubber stamp we enjoy. What would happen to rugby? AFL? Would those survive. Setanta charging $15/pop vs getting by on subscriber fees – it all seems a bit more complicated than just buying Setanta. I suppose they would keep it around until those contracts die then subsume it?

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