Long before the Premier League debuted on August 15, 1992, top flight English football was available on US television. It was nothing compared to today’s offering where practically every weekend game is available to watch. But it’s been consistently available, in one form or another, to US viewers since the early 1990s.
World Soccer Talk has done the best it can to trace the history of top flight English football on US television.
UPDATED: Thanks to the help of you, the readers, as well as Oliver Tse from SoccerTV.com, Dave Brett Wasser, Fox Soccer Channel and Shane O’Rourke from Setanta Sports, the following article has been significantly updated to include more facts about the history of top flight English football on US television.
Here’s the history in chronological order:
1980: In 1980, the Trans-Atlantic Cup featured teams from Europe (Manchester City and Roma) against two teams from North America (New York Cosmos and Vancouver Whitecaps). In the games involving Manchester City that were televised on US television, Manchester City played New York Cosmos and Vancouver Whitecaps (Man City lost both games).
1981: Select games were shown on tape-delay on ESPN.
1990-1992: During the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons (and perhaps even earlier), there was a weekly show titled “English Soccer,” which was broadcast on regional sports networks across the country. Hosted by Jim Rosenthal, the show was similar in format to “Match Of The Day” where the majority of the highlights were focused on the big game of the week, and a shorter amount of time was given to showing the goal highlights from the other matches.
August 1992-1994: With the Premier League officially launched in August 1992, the delayed US TV rights to EPL in 1992-1994 were split between two national backdrop programming services which supplied the regional sports networks: Prime Network had the delayed rights to a match of the week, edited and condensed to 90 minutes (with commercial breaks), while SportsChannel America had the rights to the 1-hour weekly highlights package, “English Soccer.”
1994-1996: In 1995, Prime Network and SportsChannel America merged into a single corporate entity, Prime SportsChannel Networks, with Prime Network being the surviving backdrop service. Prime Network retained the 1-hour weekly EPL highlights package for the 1994-1995 and 1995-1996 seasons but did not keep the game of the week due to cost. For the 1994-1995 season, Prime Network also had live coverage of the English FA Cup Final (Everton-Manchester United), with J.P. Dellacamera and Ty Keough hosting the pre-game, half-time, and post-game “wraps” from a studio in what was Liberty SportsComm (now FOX Cable Tech Center) in Houston. CSI produced the 1995 FA Cup final with Peter Brackley as the commentator. (Prime Network was eventually absorbed into what is known as FOX Sports Net in November 1996.)
1996-1998: ESPN, Inc. outbid Prime Network for the U.S. cable/satellite TV rights to EPL for the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons. (ESPN allegedly bid 10 times what Prime bid according to a Prime Network staffer.) ESPN2 aired an EPL match on Mondays (usually same-day delay until early 1998, when the matches were aired live on ESPN2 after ESPN, Inc. had been outbid by FOX Sports International for the next contract cycle) as well as the 1-hour weekly highlights package. In 1996, the rights for Premier League’s live Saturday games went from ESPN to Setanta Sports and the Premier League games were then only available on Setanta’s pub channel. That meant punters had to pay anywhere between $10 to $20 to watch a single game on a Saturday morning. But, for the first time, English football fans in the United States could watch live matches beamed via satellite.
August 15, 1998: The coverage of the 1998-1999 Premier League season kicks off on Fox Sports World. From 1998-2000, cult legend Lionel Bienvenu hosted “The English Premier League Soccer Show” on Fox Sports Net and Fox Sports World. From 1998 to 2001, Fox Soccer Channel sub-licensed some of the Premier League games to Setanta. IMG Media (then known as Trans World International, or TWI) partnered with FAPL to form Premier League Productions (PLP) to handle all international TV production for EPL starting with the 1998-1999 season, replacing CSI. CSI was later acquired by Octagon and was sold to IMG, though it retained its autonomy through different owners. CSI still produces the English FA Cup and English National Team telecasts for international distribution.
February 12, 1999: FOX Sports Americas rebrands itself as FOX Sports World Espanol. For a short period of time, FOX Sports World and FOX Sports World Espanol aired identical matches in the same time slot for about 80% of the time.
August 8, 1999: The new Premier League season begins and Fox Sports World has coverage of the entire season.
September 1, 1999: The Premier League comes to DirecTV with the addition of Fox Sports World to the satellite provider’s programming lineup.
August 19, 2000: Fox Sports World kicks off the 2000-2001 Premier League season with its residential pay-per-view package offering live games on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season. The first game of the new season was Chelsea versus Sunderland.
November 8, 2000: Fox Sports World is added to DISH Network.
March 1, 2001: Fox Sports World renews its Premier League TV rights deal for another three years for seasons 2001-2002, 2002-2003 and 2003-2004. In 2001, Setanta Sports lost the sub-licensed rights to DirecTV, who showed two key games per weekend from 2001-2003.
August 17, 2002: Fox Sports World kicks off its coverage of the 2002-2003 season by showing Leeds United against Manchester City. During the season, Fox shows three Premier League games a week at Saturday Noon ET, Sundays at 2pm ET and Mondays at 3pm ET.
August 16, 2003: Fox Sports World begins its 2003-2004 coverage of the Premier League by broadcasting Portsmouth against Aston Villa at 7:30am ET. Setanta Sports won back the sub-licensed rights from DirecTV. The matches that Setanta Sports had rights to were shown on the pub channel. Those same matches were made available by Fox Sports World on pay-per-view.
May 26, 2004: Fox Sports World announces it has retained the rights to the Premier League for the next three seasons (2004-2005, 2005-2006 and 2006-2007), and will also air the FA Cup and England national games. Fox hopes that the TV rights deal will help the network break the 20 million subscriber barrier. Around this time, DirecTV took away the rights from Setanta Sports and showed some games over the next two years.
October 1, 2004: The switch from FOX Sports World Espanol to “FOX Sports en Espanol” occurred.
February 6, 2005: Fox Sports World changes its name to Fox Soccer Channel. Fox shows approximately 195 matches per season.
August 19, 2006: Setanta Sports begins broadcasting Premier League football again after sub-licensing some of the rights from Fox Soccer Channel. While the previous season’s matches featured games only on Fox Soccer Channel, the 2006-2007 season showed 10 live games during the first week of the season compared to three the previous season. The era of pay-per-view Premier League matches was now officially over.
January 3, 2007: Fox Soccer Channel announces it has retained the rights to the Premier League on US TV for the next three seasons: 2007-2008, 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.
While the above history is pretty detailed, it by no means represents the complete history of US coverage of top flight English football. Feel free to add any comments below of anything that’s missing. Or post a comment to share an opinion about the development of Premier League football on US TV over the years.
Special thanks to soccer TV historian Oliver Tse and Setanta Sports President of North American & Australian Operations Shane O’Rourke.