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Leagues: Champions League

Turner’s acquisition of Champions League is big development

The soccer world reacted with a combination of shock, sarcasm and guarded optimism on Friday afternoon when World Soccer Talk broke the news that Turner Sports — who has not broadcast soccer on TV since the folding of the WUSA in 2003 (which aired on TNT and the now-defunct CNNSI) and has not shown men’s soccer since the 1990 World Cup — had won the English-language rights to broadcast the UEFA Champions League in the United States from August 2018 until June 2021. FOX Sports, the current rights holder, will continue to broadcast the competition for the remainder of this season and next.

Reportedly, the bid by Turner Sports was nearly double that of the incumbent FOX Sports and BAMTech, which presumably as an entity partly owned by Disney would have aired matches on ESPN associated channels. NBC Sports, who broadcast the English Premier League — the most-popular soccer league among English-language audiences in the United States, submitted what Sports Business Journal described as a “token” bid.

The acquisition of these rights by Turner is potentially a massively positive development for the airing of soccer in the United States. Turner networks doesn’t broadcast the volume of live sports programming that experienced soccer broadcasters FOX, ESPN and NBC do. In spite of this or perhaps because of this reality, Turner Sports does a top shelf job of all the bigger sporting properties they have in their portfolio.

For many fans of European soccer in the United States, FOX Sports’s studio work around the UEFA Champions League has become patronizing and replaceable. Complaints among fans that FOX Sports uses the studio shows and pregame coverage to push storylines related to American soccer and MLS have been more frequent in recent months. However you view this cross-promotion strategy by FOX Sports — a network which it cannot be questioned has been committed more than perhaps any other to growing the American game — Turner is likely to take a different tact.

FOX has been the MLS and US Soccer rights holder for the majority of the time it broadcast the UEFA Champions League. It’s also been a network not only committed to hiring American talent, but using that talent on broadcasts of European soccer. Turner Sports might hire some of the same type of talent but is likely to eschew the type of MLS-centric or US Men’s National Team related discussions that tend to dominate coverage on FOX.

Creative studio work with memorable soundbites has been a hallmark of Turner’s basketball coverage both of the NBA and NCAA Tournament. It’s worth noting that Turner has no regular season NCAA coverage, with the bulk of games being on ESPN, FOX and CBS (depending on the conference). Yet Turner’s studio team is well=prepared and versed on college basketball. After a learning curve the first year, Turner Sports split NCAA Tournament rights with CBS in 2011. Since then, the Turner team has become very seasoned in the understanding of college basketball. UEFA Champions League presents a similar challenge as Turner will not broadcast any of the leagues that send clubs into the competition, leaving its talent to watch and study broadcasts on other networks (NBC and FOX) to develop a read on the competition.

Turner’s production of basketball has cutting-edge studio analysis but lacks the type of cutesy sound effects and loud, over-the-top graphics that have become a staple of FOX Sports’s soccer coverage. More than likely, the loud intros/outros to studio segments will go away under Turner.

In terms of talent at FOX Sports, losing Eric Wynalda potentially might be tough for viewers, but given that his role on non-Bundesliga FOX broadcasts seems to be minimal and he can hardly get a word in edgewise on the UCL pregame shows, he might be better off jumping to Turner. Rob Stone is unlikely to move to Turner as he has a critical role in college football and basketball coverage at the network. It will be critical for Turner to hire a studio host with Stone’s knowledge of soccer, which is easier said than done. Alexi Lalas would fit the Turner mold for studio broadcasts but is likely to stay with a network that has FIFA and MLS rights.

Turner might want to look to ESPN where the excellent duo of Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop could enhance any studio team (hint to NBC Sports as well). But it must be remembered that Turner is likely to base coverage in Atlanta rather than current FOX Sports locale of Los Angeles or Connecticut where NBC and ESPN broadcast from. As an aside, this further grows Atlanta as a destination for soccer coverage with Atlanta United currently launching in MLS with a much stronger following than many critics had anticipated (plus the likelihood of a new NASL club beginning play in the eastern suburbs next year).

Finally, a word about streaming. As someone who subscribes to FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2 but constantly has trouble streaming FOX Sports Go (and thus misses most of Champions League because it does take place on weekday afternoons), Turner can only do better – and likely will.

A personal story – college basketball is the only other sport I follow closely besides soccer. But the sport was losing me in the late 2000’s as CBS’ monopoly on tournament coverage was substandard after a regular season where mainly ESPN but also FOX regional networks had made the sport super-accessible. It almost felt as if the conference tournaments were the end of the season. But Turner’s pioneering work in providing outstanding streaming coverage allowed viewers to watch any match online irrespective of what game was on a local CBS affiliate. It made the tournament more accessible and interesting. The streaming product was nearly flawless and it’s become much easier and fulfilling to watch weekday NCAA tournament games.

I believe Turner will similarly make the UEFA Champions League, which like many of the early round games of the NCAA Tournament takes place on weekday afternoons, accessible and easier to follow. It will also likely attract new fans with this ease of access on all devices.

The general reaction to Turner’s acquisition of UEFA Champions League rights has been positive. FOX Sports’s unpopularity with core soccer audiences creates an opening and will likely give Turner a honeymoon period, much as NBC enjoyed with the Premier League when they gained the rights from FOX Sports in 2013.

I believe Turner will do as well as NBC in redefining how European soccer can be covered in the United States.

SEE MORE: Schedule of UEFA Champions League games on US TV and streaming

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  1. Rick

    December 21, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    TNT coverage sucks!!! In the group stages they have one token game live and all the rest are PPV on BleacherReport. Ted Turner claims to be a supporter of the average American when he is nothing more than a 1% that gouges fans $9.99 just to watch a group stage match. What a loser.

  2. NaBUru38

    March 1, 2017 at 10:51 am

    Univisión getting Spanish-language rights is more important than Turner getting English-language rights.

  3. Paul

    February 28, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    A new player has emerged. Youtube TV just launched and is offering many channels including FS1, FS2, ESPN1, 2 & 3. I think the cost is $15 a month with no contract.

    • Christopher Harris

      February 28, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      It’s $35 per month and won’t be launched for a few months (and will only be available in the largest cities in the US first). And it doesn’t include Turner Sports (i.e. TNT). There are some pluses and minuses regarding it. We’ll be covering it on this week’s World Soccer Talk Podcast in more detail.

  4. daniel

    February 28, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    did turner only acquire the champions league package or did they get the combined package with the europa league?

    • Christopher Harris

      February 28, 2017 at 1:43 pm

      • daniel

        February 28, 2017 at 2:09 pm

        thanks chris. i think youre a valuable resource for info on tv rights here in america. here in chicago i regularly tweet to comcast about for as much as i pay i still have to pirate stream because they dont offer fs2,fox soccer plus or bein sport connect.

        • Christopher Harris

          February 28, 2017 at 2:32 pm

          You’re welcome Daniel. The goal with World Soccer Talk is to provide all of the information soccer fans need to make the viewing experience as easier as possible (whether on TV or online).

          • daniel

            February 28, 2017 at 2:58 pm

            any possibility you have any info on rugby rights?

            • Christopher Harris

              February 28, 2017 at 3:44 pm

              No, sorry.

          • Tayo

            February 28, 2017 at 10:13 pm

            Hi Chris,
            Do you have any contacts at NBCSN? I feel we are not getting the Premier League contents they promised to provide us. Shows like Premier League World, Premier League Preview & Review. Sometimes it comes on and sometimes it does not. Look I understand they have so many sports they have rights too but at least make it available via NBC Sports Streaming. You can’t give us content from IMG but can give us shows like ‘Its called football’ I mean I hope you understand my point of view

            • Christopher Harris

              March 3, 2017 at 10:48 am

              Premier League Preview Show is usually shown on Friday mornings at 6am ET. The Review show is shown when they have time to fit it, sometimes on Tuesday mornings. They want more people to watch their Goal Zone and Match of the Day shows. Premier League World is shown on NBCSN whenever there’s room in the TV schedule.

  5. CTBlues

    February 28, 2017 at 11:47 am

    If I’m not mistaken when TBS shows MLB playoff games online they use the TBS app and not a special MLB Playoff app, but that could be because the MLB charges for access to the playoffs through the apps.

  6. Caleb

    February 28, 2017 at 10:06 am

    I know it’s popular to hate on Fox Sports, but as you mentioned, all these European games are on during the day in the US. At least Fox is consistent in re-airing the games at night, which I love. NBC Sports is really good with this on their app with EPL. Unless they can do this with an app, I don’t see Turner being able to do this, seeing that they don’t have a sports-only channel. Maybe I’m missing something.

  7. The yank

    February 28, 2017 at 8:31 am

    Fox sports go works for me every time and has never gave me an issue. I can cast to my TV and it works perfectly. I think people like to complain about Fox just because. If TNT throws a few accents in its studio coverage, the eurofiles will drool over it. I also never understand why everyone cares so much about studio content. If I can watch the game I am happy. I guess that just shows you how soft people have become.

  8. Nosferatu

    February 27, 2017 at 11:52 pm

    Eric Wynalda adds so little to Champions League studio coverage–and, in fact, with his dour demeanor and seeming agitation to actually having to be there to cover the games, has, for me, a negative impact on Fox’s coverage. I will certainly not miss him, and Barton is pretty unpleasant and not effective in his analysis as well, while Lalas strikes me as mostly a nonentity, just sort of *there* on set (but at least not unpleasant!).

    • Jon

      February 28, 2017 at 2:01 am

      I don’t enjoy Wynalda’s live commentary during Bundesliga games either. He talks more than the main commentator, cutting into nearly every game description, including talking over goals being scored as he did this weekend.

  9. Cpcva

    February 27, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    I suppose there will be no coverage on ota tv

    • Rob

      February 28, 2017 at 12:29 am

      Only time will tell.

    • CTBlues

      February 28, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Turner doesn’t have any OTA stations and if they did they are not going to show soccer over weekday day time TV in the US. The only game Fox ever showed on OTA was the final and that was because it was on a Saturday afternoon. Why would Turner give up the final to say show it on CBS?

    • Borussia DortMan

      March 1, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Univision will show games over the air. Time to brush up on Spanish.

  10. Eplnfl

    February 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    However and I know this is a concern for you Kartik will MLS coverage be hurt? Turner will not have any interest in promoting the MLS coverage on another network.

  11. techvet

    February 27, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    I tried streaming TNT via Sling TV for the NBA All-Star game and the picture was sporadic at best. On the other hand, I have had few troubles, if any, streaming FOXSportsGo games (via Time Warner Cable). TNT has time, but they have a lot of work to do.

  12. ROB

    February 27, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    We will get a sense of how they plan on covering UCL when they do thier press conference to the US sports media.

    • LIguy

      February 27, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      True, but that would make for a short article.

  13. LIguy

    February 27, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    The streaming app for the NCAA tournament is the first thing I thought of when this was announced this. I really hope they have something similar, that would be great.

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