The UEFA Champions League has in recent years become a hot television property in the United States. The new television rights cycle that begins for the 2021-22 competition reportedly is worth $150 million a year in the US. CBS Sports and Univision will share the rights, with CBS Sports providing English language broadcasts and Univision broadcasting the matches in Spanish.
Recent interest in the Champions League on US TV belies the early days of coverage when the competition was basically a throwaway on ESPN’s programming schedule.
Here’s the history of the UEFA Champions League on US TV:
ESPN’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League was buried in obscurity during the 1990’s. At the time, interest in live televised soccer was low and ESPN had yet to develop the plethora of daytime internally-produced “talking head shows” they now feature. So the Champions League aired without much fanfare or promotion.
Despite the lack of promotion or general interest, the competition did give ESPN the ability to show live sports programming rather than a repeat of a previous night’s domestic sporting competition which is often what ESPN would do in the days before 24/7 SportsCenter and the development of in-house studio shows.
Following Liverpool’s epic 2005 comeback in Istanbul against AC Milan and Barcelona’s 2006 triumph, ESPN saw greater value in the tournament. Beginning with the 2006-2007 competition, ESPN began airing more matches live, using its ESPN Classic secondary channel as a place to park additional matches not aired on ESPN2.
ESPN’s lead commentators Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth became household names for soccer fans not just in the US, but wherever ESPN had the international rights to broadcast the Champions League in English. The growth of ESPN Deportes on the Spanish Language side occurred during this period.
For soccer fans in the US, Champions League football on ESPN was a natural occurrence. Therefore it came as a massive shock in the Spring of 2009 when FOX Sports, known mostly to soccer fans for its low budget productions of the Premier League, won the US rights in both English and Spanish.
When FOX first acquired the UEFA Champions League rights, the broadcaster had yet to launch its dedicated sports channels and its soccer broadcasts were limited to FOX Soccer Channel, a niche second-tier cable channel. As described above, FOX had a reputation among soccer fans for inexpensive production with presenters and commentators all based in LA’s smallish soccer punditry community.
The limited distribution of FOX Soccer Channel forced FOX to place two matches a week during the group stages on FOX Sports regional networks (RSN’s). In 2009, the network of 23 RSN’s affiliated or owned by FOX gave the broadcaster essentially an ability to create national distribution without having a national cable channel.
These channels served in a cable sense how local broadcast affiliates provide over-the-air network programming to a local audience. Suddenly networks such as FOX Sports Florida – whose programming was entirely local in scope including the Miami Heat, University of Florida, Orlando Magic, among others – were broadcasting soccer’s most prestigious global club event.
SEE MORE: History of the Premier League on US TV
Out of the gates, somewhat surprisingly, FOX did well with the elements of the presentation it controlled. A full studio show bracketing the televised matches was launched led by the soccer-savvy presenter Christian Miles. Eric Wynalda, who had recently moved from ESPN, and Bobby McMahon, typically based in Winnipeg as part of FOX Soccer Channel’s nightly Canadian-based news show, served as analysts from LA.
But what FOX could not control – because they didn’t have a Rae-caliber presenter on their team – was the quality of commentary on the UEFA-produced international feed in English. UEFA was at the time using commentator Tim White’s consultancy to provide English language commentary for the global feed. White’s team provided some of the worst match commentary you will ever hear in the English language for a high-level competition. After years of listening to Rae and other high-level ESPN announcers, fans were unhappy.
FOX wisely, at this point, shifted gears on match presentation and used the feeds coming from UK television partner Sky Sports. During the knockout stages, FOX strategically used cable channel FX and newly created premium HD channel FOX Soccer Plus (which had begun programming on January 1, 2010 after the collapse of Setanta Sports in the US) to supplement what was on Fox Soccer Channel and the FOX Regional Networks. For the final of the 2009-10 competition, they televised the match over-the-air on the FOX Network and brought in NFL presenter Curt Menefee to host the day’s coverage.
In 2011, FOX hired Rob Stone from ESPN where he was a longtime gap-filler on ESPN’s soccer coverage and a commentator who called lower-tier college football and basketball games for the network. Stone was immediately plugged in as the host of the Premier League on FOX Soccer and the Champions League. The same year, FOX won the rights to air the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup in English. The announcement was a stunner which ended ESPN and the networks owned by Disney’s effective monopoly any big international summer tournaments that aired in English on United States TV.
Having acquired the rights to FIFA events, FOX began grooming Gus Johnson as the new American voice of soccer during 2013. At this point, FOX began shifting bigger matches from the Sky Sports or international commentary feed. Johnson’s inability to grasp the cadence and flow of calling a soccer match, coupled with the network’s acquisition of the rights to broadcast the reconfigured Big East Conference’s basketball package, ended the experiment. Former Portland Timbers broadcaster John Strong replaced Johnson and remained the top voice for the competition on FOX until the broadcaster lost the rights in 2018.
FOX in 2013 launched two dedicated national sports networks to compete with ESPN’s multiple channel lineup and NBC and CBS new sports channels. The Champions League would be a core part of FS1 and FS2’s programming. In fact, when FOX launched the channel, classic American sportswriters were shocked how much the broadcaster promoted soccer as part of the new channels makeup, expressing a level of commitment publicly that had seldom been seen by a US-based network.
On the Spanish side, FOX’s limited distribution led to a sublicense deal that brought ESPN back into the Champions League space beginning with the 2015-16 edition of the competition. ESPN Deportes aired multiple matches each Group Stage matchday and the sublicense agreement eventually gave ESPN2 six English language broadcasts.
During its last few years as the official broadcaster of the competition, FOX used its network of channels, the ESPN sublicense and occasionally a Facebook Live broadcast hosted by Rachel Bonetta to make as many matches accessible as possible. When FOX lost the English language rights to Turner Sports in 2017 for the period from 2018 to 2021, many fans were relieved. They felt FOX’s low quality production and Americanized commentary was vastly inferior to how NBC and ESPN broadcast the sport.
FOX lost the Spanish Language rights to Univision who would soon launch, in partnership with Televisa, a new sports network TUDN to replace Univision Deportes.
Turner and Univision Deportes
Turner Sports’ acquisition of the rights to the UEFA Champions League was met with great hopes from many US-based soccer fans. For starters, TNT, TBS and TruTV were in a lot more homes than FS1 and FS2. Secondly, many hard-core English-dominant soccer fans did not like FOX’s style of presentation.
However, Turner Sports — from the beginning — disappointed fans. Despite acquiring the rights in early 2017 for a broadcast start in mid-2018, the broadcaster appeared unprepared, and made announcements in terms of talent and broadcast plans at the last possible minute. Turner limited terrestrial TV coverage to approximately four matches a week aired on TNT, with no use of TBS or TruTV. Turner also chose to put most matches behind a paywall. This was done to promote Bleacher Report Live (B/R Live), Turner Sports streaming service.
B/R Live proved, at first, to be a technical disaster. A clunky layout and a price point higher than similar services from other networks, many English-language dominant fans flocked to new Spanish language broadcaster Univision. The easy accessibility of Univision’s over-the-air broadcasts in large media markets as well as TUDN on cable helped drive audience in that direction.
Turner’s studio hosted by Kate Abdo and featuring FOX’s top analyst Stuart Holden had been regularly panned by critics. In the first year of TNT’s coverage, former NBA great Steve Nash, whose father and brother were professional soccer players, was part of the studio team. That also did not go over very well with many critics.
Despite these setbacks, because of the reach of TNT, a channel far more mainstream than any sports offering from FOX and the growing popularity of the sport in the US, Turner viewership in English have been significantly higher than FOX’s.
Turner Sports wanted to retain the rights beyond their three year period but were blindsided by CBS Sports’ sudden interest in soccer, and lost the rights for the 2021-2024 cycle. Univision will retain the Spanish-language rights for this period.
CBS acquired the English-language rights for the competition in late 2019 for the 2021-2024 right cycle. Immediately, it was revealed CBS planned to show live matches on its streaming CBS All-Access platform. All Access is a widely distributed platform that features movies, dramas, documentaries and news programs. They’ve never broadcast live soccer before, but until B/R Live, this puts the competition on an established streaming system. In addition, it has been reported that CBS will broadcast matches on terrestrial television, via over-the-air CBS and CBS Sports Network