The worst kept secret about the Bundesliga in the United States has now been officially confirmed. Beginning in the summer of 2020, ESPN+ will be the exclusive broadcaster of the German league in the United States.
It means that the five-year grip that FOX Sports had on the United States is coming to an end. That news will be celebrated by most, but there will be some that may be saddened by the situation given that FOX Sports despite all of their inconsistencies did elevate the Bundesliga to a select number of games across free-to-air television.
Due to FOX Sports making a global decision to acquire the rights to the Bundesliga for the 2015 season onwards, it appeared that there wasn’t much buy-in to the idea from FOX Sports in the United States. Over the course of the last five years, FOX’s coverage of the Bundesliga has been mostly frustrating due to a lack of promotion and the fact that the broadcaster used the Bundesliga as filler material when it didn’t have NASCAR, golf or other commitments. But at times, when FOX appeared to be committed, the coverage gave us some highs including Ian Joy’s analysis, Keith Costigan’s commentary and games on the big FOX network.
Looking back at the last five years and considering the future of the Bundesliga on ESPN+, a deal like this isn’t so simple. Taking that into consideration, here are the winners and losers from this seismic deal:
1) FOX Sports is out of the European club soccer business. When FOX Sports will televise their final game of the 2019/20 Bundesliga season next May 2020, the broadcaster will no longer have any rights to European club soccer leagues or competitions.
It means that in the space of two years, FOX Sports have lost the rights to the Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and Scottish Premiership.
And remember that FOX Sports used to have the rights to the Premier League.
The only club soccer leagues FOX Sports will have the rights to are Major League Soccer and Liga MX. For hardcore soccer fans who prefer watching club soccer from overseas, FOX Sports will be irrelevant.
2) FOX Soccer Match Pass. Surely the loss of the Bundesliga will be the death knell for the FOX Soccer Match Pass streaming service. If not, it’ll mean that FOX Soccer Match Pass will limp along with an underwhelming amount of rights (select MLS games and niche soccer competitions) with a price point that is the most expensive in the industry ($20/month).
While the future doesn’t look bright for FOX Soccer Match Pass, imagine what the service could have been if it had decided to make the long-term investment that ESPN+ is making.
3) Legacy television networks. The exodus of consumers from their cable and satellite packages to cutting the cord and streaming the content they want continues to increase. And with deals like this one where the vast majority of games will only be available exclusively online, the movement from television to streaming continues to increase.
It means that some consumers will be left behind if they don’t adapt to the new changes. But it’s the way that sports and entertainment is moving. And soccer is a trailblazer is this area.
4) Bundesliga. Depending which side of the fence you sit on, you may see plenty of advantages and disadvantages to the Bundesliga signing the deal with ESPN+. But the fact of the matter is that the Bundesliga — no matter what the league may say — will have worse distribution on ESPN+ than it had on FOX Sports.
With ESPN’s new deal, the broadcast of the Bundesliga will be somewhat similar to how Serie A is treated in the United States. ESPN has guaranteed to broadcast at least four games a season on the main TV channels. And every single other match will be available live on ESPN+.
As with Serie A — and now the Bundesliga — there remains the distant possibility that a key game may end up on ABC. But, for the most part, FOX’s distribution of the Bundesliga reached greater numbers than what ESPN may reach. FOX’s over-the-air broadcasts of Bundesliga games on the big FOX network is greater than the flagship ESPN network. And even games on FS2 will reach more actual viewers of Bundesliga games on ESPN+.
With the Bundesliga, they’re making a long-term play that streaming is the future of watching soccer in the United States. It’s a smart decision, but in the short-term, it means that the Bundesliga will be less visible to mainstream sports fans in the United States.
5) FOX Soccer Plus will become more of a zombie channel than it is already. Whisper the words “FOX Soccer Plus” to sports fans in the United States, and you may get some quizzical looks. But if FOX Soccer Plus was almost irrelevant before, it’ll certainly become even less familiar beginning in the summer of 2020 when the Bundesliga will no longer be available on it.
FOX Soccer Plus has been a misnomer for years. With the exit of the Bundesliga, perhaps now is finally the time for FOX Sports to consider renaming the network to something less descriptive or what it could possibly become — FOX Rugby Channel.
6) The future of FOX’s talent. Without the Bundesliga, the amount of soccer coverage on FOX Sports after the summer of 2020 will be practically nothing. Yes, there’ll be the one to two MLS games on a Sunday night as well as an occasional Liga MX game on a weekend late at night. But outside the big competitions such as the World Cup, Women’s World Cup and Gold Cup, the soccer talent at FOX Sports will have almost no work available to them.
Sadly, that may mean that contracts will not be renewed or that talent will be hired on a project-by-project basis. After all, what’s the point of paying large salaries to talent who only have 1 or 2 gigs a week as well as a one-month tournament every two years?
Expect a lot of changes and cutbacks in the ranks at FOX Sports.
7) TUDN. In an interview with a TUDN executive last month, we discovered that TUDN was in discussions with the Bundesliga to renew the Spanish-language rights to the German top-flight league. Under the new agreement that ESPN has signed with the Bundesliga for the August 2020 season onwards, ESPN has acquired both the English-language and Spanish-language rights to the league.
More details will be forthcoming about Spanish-language rights, but presumably the televised matches will be on ESPN Deportes while the other games will be available in Spanish-language on ESPN+.
1) ESPN+. The streaming service from the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader In Sports has gobbled up almost every single soccer rights package available in the past year. That includes the addition of Serie A, FA Cup, League Cup, Copa America, Championship, Coppa Italia, Eredivisie, International Champions Cup, US Open Cup, Chinese Super League and other leagues.
In that same timespan, FOX Soccer Match Pass has acquired nothing.
While the addition of the rights is a win for ESPN+, it also provides more value to ESPN+ subscribers who are getting more soccer coverage than ever before.
2) Bundesliga. By securing a six-year deal with ESPN, it means that the Bundesliga and ESPN have a long-term partnership to work together to grow the league’s popularity until the rights agreement ends in 2026 — right before the World Cup.
It gives ESPN an opportunity to work more closely with the Bundesliga to make a concerted effort to grow the league. While FOX Sports had the same opportunity to do so in the five years they worked together, ESPN has a much better idea of how to market soccer to sports fans than what FOX’s track record has shown.
3) Consumers. When the Bundesliga moves to ESPN+, it’ll be more affordable than ever for soccer fans to access their favorite league than ever before. At $4.99 per month, Bundesliga fans will have access to every game each week except for the televised matches that’ll be available on cable or satellite TV.
4) A new opportunity for talent. With ESPN’s coverage of Serie A, the broadcaster was able to elevate Mark Donaldson to the lead-commentator of the Serie A Match of the Week alongside co-commentator Matteo Bonetti who was hired from beIN SPORTS. With ESPN broadcasting the Bundesliga next season, there remains the possibility of a similar move for someone who an intimate knowledge of the German leagues. The obvious candidate would be Ian Joy as a co-commentator. But there’s plenty of talent already at ESPN who could step into the role.