After suffering through 18 months of UEFA club competition broadcasts on Turner Sports, soccer fans in the United States have been largely glowing so far in their response to CBS Sports. The network, which has eschewed broadcasting high-level soccer for decades, jumped head-first into the sport this summer with coverage of the NWSL Challenge Cup, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Champions League. The network’s level of production and professionalism have instantly elevated both NWSL and UEFA club competitions on US television and streaming.
Much like Turner, most of CBS’ live offerings are behind a subscription OTT service. However the similarity ends there, as CBS All Access is a tried-and-tested streaming platform that many soccer fans already own a subscription to, whereas B/R Live was clunky, unreliable and cost-prohibitive.
CBS has quickly made itself into the anti-Turner. Unlike Turner’s eclectic blend of features in a larger, largely unpredictable studio show, CBS has thus far proven reliable. Features by CBS in the pre-match programs have focused on tactics and important aspects of the sport both on and off the pitch.
With a relatively quick turnaround to try and put together a roster of talent, CBS decided to use IMG Studios in London as their home base who, until 2018, produced UEFA’s world feed broadcasts. The London location allowed CBS to bring onboard some of the most seasoned and recognizable English-language voices in the sport. In particular, Roberto Martinez has once again shown the depth of his analysis, a style which made him a star of ESPN’s World Cup and Euro coverage between 2010 and 2016.
Additionally, CBS has plucked an impressive lineup of talent including New York-based Ian Joy and Poppy Miller to enhance its free CBS Sports HQ soccer offerings on UEFA matchdays. Joy was a standout of FOX’s coverage of Bundesliga action the last five years after arriving from beIN SPORTS while Miller was one of the top presenters in US lower division soccer working with the Charleston Battery for several seasons prior to joining CBS.
Here are some takeaways of CBS’ coverage of Europa and Champions League:
CBS All Access is flawless in streaming – the quality is the same as on an HD television and there are zero buffering issues. I streamed a total of eight matches this week on the platform and only had one problem early in the first match when I switched my television from the input with CBS All Access back to satellite to watch CNN. The problem did not occur any other time I went back to satellite afterwards, and the streaming on my laptop was as good as watching a downloaded (not streaming) Amazon Prime or Netflix video.
When you compare this to the absolute hassle of B/R Live and the consistent issues with maintaining a stream that did not cut out for two hours on that product, it’s a massive upgrade for both competitions.
Excellent hosts, smooth transitions
Whether it was CBS Sports HQ with Poppy Miller and Ian Joy or CBS Sports Network/All Access with Kate Abdo and Alex Scott, the hosts were comfortable with the surroundings and the commentary/reporting talent. Unlike Turner who made a mess out of dual hosts and dual studios at times, transitions between Abdo and Scott were smooth as the format involving Miller and Joy.
Pulling no punches in discussions
Jamie Carragher, like his Sky Sports colleague Gary Neville, has been a consistent critic of UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, although unlike Nevillle, Carragher has also been critical of Manchester City’s flaunting of the rules. My assumption was that CBS, as a new UEFA rights holder, would avoid rocking the boat and not allow Carragher to express this viewpoint on the network’s first Champions League pregame show.
However, CBS not only let him speak his mind on it but facilitated a full-on discussion of FFP, with Carragher giving American audiences similar arguments to what he and Neville have given British viewers in the past. Peter Schmeichel — who would stand out on both Friday and Saturday with some very blunt analysis — pushed back on Carragher’s views. It made for an outstanding discussion.
On Saturday, Schmeichel took the entire concept of VAR to task after the Barcelona-Napoli match, which much like Friday’s Juventus-Lyon match had been engulfed in controversial VAR decisions.
Stu Holden is outstanding and one of the top analysts of soccer in the United States, but the rest of the Turner studio analyst team was largely subpar when compared to the ensemble cast CBS has assembled. This might explain why Abdo visibly struggled at times with Turner, but was dialed-in and impressive in her first two days on the job at CBS.
Micah Richards had a poor first day, perhaps out of partiality to Manchester City. But he bounced back with some very strong talking points in the pre match show Saturday. Carragher showed at times limitations in his knowledge of continental football on Friday, but was otherwise strong both days. Martinez and Schmeichel were on-point even if they sometimes struggled with timing and chemistry – elements that will no doubt come in time.
Martinez adds an element to studio discussions that not only were lacking on Turner, but are generally missing on FOX and NBC as well in their coverage of soccer. Only ESPN, with its rotating cast of analyst talent flanking Dan Thomas and the other ESPN FC hosts, comes close to having the sort of analytically smart individual on set at all times.
The presence of Martinez makes CBS’ studio can’t miss television.
CBS’ is quite possibly best known for its coverage of NCAA March Madness. Building the idea of bracket discussions into the network’s soccer coverage gives some appeal to crossover viewers without being excessively Americanized like so much of what FOX and Turner have done with this competition in the past. A perfect balance was struck here of giving a familiar American-style discussion while not being overtly dumbed down.
Accessibility on linear television
I am going to get in trouble here with some readers but I believe it is perfectly reasonable in this day and age for a broadcaster to stream all matches live behind a paywall, but then replay a taped match on a cable channel.
The CBS Sports Network television channel has fewer programming commitments than NBCSN, ESPN, FS1 or Turner, so it has the ability to do this. If you set your DVR properly, you have hours worth of UEFA programming when you wake up the next morning – including on Europa League match days. If you take into account tape-delayed broadcasts, CBS has already shown more individual Europa League matches on TV (four) than Turner did in its year and a half of airing the tournament (just one final). Never once did Turner take a completed broadcast and put it on air overnight for those who did not sign up for the streaming service to watch on their cable package.
Superb match commentary
ITV’s decision to release Clive Tyldesley, a move that was met with much criticism in the UK media, ended up being a massive break for soccer fans in the United States. The classy veteran commentator was superb in his CBS debut, working alongside former England goalkeeper Rob Green. Tyldesley made several references during the match to being on CBS, and taped a pre-match segment which discussed the Champions League finally getting the network coverage it deserved in the US.
For viewers of the Premier League on NBC, the outstanding Saturday performance of the familiar Peter Drury and Jim Beglin team was no surprise. The duo have frequently done both world feed matches that appear on NBC as well as commentaries exclusively for NBC.
Before kickoff, Drury, knowing he was calling the match specifically for a US audience, mentioned Konrad de la Fuente making the Barcelona bench for the first time, due to the side being ravaged by injuries and suspensions.
As always, Drury excelled and Beglin chimed in with smart takes. One particular exchange stood out for me as the type of deep-dive they would generally not engage in when calling matches on the international feed for either the Premier League or Champions League. A smart, intelligent conversation about Napoli’s colorful and controversial owner Aurelio De Laurentiis highlighted some of the discussion of the Italian club in the second half.
It was reminiscent of the deeper conversations Arlo White and his analysts have on NBC Premier League broadcasts, and unlike how Drury and Beglin generally approach such subjects when more conservatively calling matches on world feeds.
CBS bringing on board Tyldesley, Drury and Beglin is top shelf stuff, and a real privilege for American viewers.
The involvement of Guillem Balagué in Barcelona and Rafa Honigstein in Munich was a pleasant surprise and replicated the ESPN FC use of Sid Lowe and Honigstein as reporters in cities hosting matches in the past. These are two of the most respected English language football journalists and their involvement further elevated CBS’ coverage.
CBS played all relevant pre and post match interviews, something Turner often skipped and had two exceptional moments. In the first, Honigstein post match interviewed Bayern’s talisman Robert Lewandowski exclusively for CBS. And in the second, Abdo used her Spanish language skills to accurately translate Barcelona Manager Quique Setién’s postgame press statement.
How does the competition respond?
Last year, when ESPN brought Jon Champion to the United States to call MLS matches, the level of US network-produced match commentary was elevated. Similarly, the presence of Drury and Tyldesley calling matches exclusively for a US network elevates the level expected by viewers in this country.
From my vantage point, NBC’s coverage of the Premier League has become stale and predictable. Studio shows are largely repetitive and have become less worthwhile for the viewer. An emphasis on big clubs has dominated recent seasons and the departure of Neil Ashton as an insider has made the programs even less useful.
My thinking is that NBC executives who watched CBS this past week would have noticed how broadcasting of this type has moved way beyond what NBC offers currently.
This summer has seen ESPN elevate its broadcasting style, camera work and commentary during the MLS is Back Tournament as well as with Serie A and the FA Cup. The network will also begin broadcasting the Bundesliga next season. With CBS’ addition to the soccer broadcasting landscape, NBC seems the most on the back foot, outside of FOX who honestly appear to have mailed it in on this sport recently.
The NBC approach to covering the Premier League was unlike anything we had seen on US TV in 2013, but in 2020, ESPN and now CBS are offering features and commentary levels both in studio and with match commentary that NBC isn’t.
How NBC responds with two years remaining on its current Premier League deal will be of great interest.
It may be too early to say CBS has set an unreachable high bar for match coverage and studio programming, but the competition no doubt tuned in this past week and were blown away. The few loose ends in CBS’ studio team and minor kinks in the broadcasts will no doubt be worked out in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, the winners are soccer fans in the US who have been given a window into how well European club competition can be covered on US television.
Watch live coverage of every round, including every game of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League on CBS All Access. New to CBS All Access? Get your 30-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
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