Future El Clásico matches featuring Real Madrid and Barcelona could be heading to ESPN in the near future. A source with knowledge of the situation revealed to World Soccer Talk that ESPN has been in talks to try to finalize a U.S. rights deal for LaLiga that would encompass the next six seasons beginning in August, 2021.
Originally, ESPN had hoped to announce the landmark rights acquisition at Disney’s Investor Day in December, sources said. While the delay was unexpected, ESPN is also in negotiations to renew its U.S. rights to Italy’s Serie A. ESPN’s current three-year deal that was signed in 2018 ends after the 2020/21 season is completed.
If deals can be reached with both Serie A and LaLiga, ESPN will have rights to the vast majority of club soccer coverage in the United States for the next several years. After losing the FIFA World Cup rights to FOX Sports, ESPN has focused its efforts on rebuilding its rights portfolio with ESPN+ a main part of its strategy. According to an industry source, ESPN can monetize their soccer coverage far more effectively via subscriptions to ESPN+ than other networks who focus exclusively on broadcasting televised matches.
Regarding ESPN’s attempts to acquire the rights to LaLiga for the U.S. market, an ESPN spokesman declined to comment.
Negotiating rights deals can often be complex, and this one between LaLiga North America and ESPN is no exception. In 2019, beIN SPORTS renewed its U.S. rights to LaLiga through 2024 as part of a global deal that the Spanish league reached with the broadcaster. Nevertheless, beIN SPORTS have been unable to rectify their distribution issues. The network is still unavailable on Comcast Xfinity and DirecTV, two of the nation’s largest TV providers. These distribution issues have been a point of contention for LaLiga North America who believe that it has severely hurt the growth of LaLiga in the United States, and prevented the Spanish league from being televised to a much larger audience.
A source confirmed with World Soccer Talk that ESPN has been trying to obtain the U.S. rights to LaLiga for quite some time. Not only would the rights be a boost for LaLiga’s growth, but they’d certainly be an attractive property for ESPN Deportes. Also, while World Soccer Talk understands that a possible deal between LaLiga and ESPN may feature the vast majority of games on ESPN+, ESPN has the opportunity to broadcast select games such as el Clásico on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, which are in a far greater number of households than beIN SPORTS is currently.
Without LaLiga, beIN SPORTS would be in a difficult position as a U.S. broadcaster. The English- and Spanish-language network has the rights to France’s Ligue 1, Turkey’s Süper Lig as well as Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana. LaLiga has been the network’s flagship league, so this would be a massive blow to the broadcaster who has held the rights to Spain’s LaLiga since 2012.
Whether LaLiga can find a loophole in the agreement with beIN SPORTS to break the contract and then offer the rights to ESPN, that’s the big question. LaLiga North America has urged beIN SPORTS in the past to consider sublicensing some of its games to other broadcasters, a source revealed to World Soccer Talk. But those repeated attempts failed. Officially, LaLiga North America — which is a partnership between Relevent Sports and LaLiga — says that beIN SPORTS continues to be the league’s global partner.
LaLiga finds itself in the difficult position of wanting to be on a U.S. network with greater distribution, but not wanting to rock the boat with its global partner beIN SPORTS. World Soccer Talk reached out to beIN SPORTS Media Group in London, but have not heard back.
Looking ahead, 2021 promises to be an eventful one for ESPN+ and other soccer broadcasters. World Soccer Talk understands that NBC Sports are diligently working to try to renew its U.S. rights to the Premier League. The current rights contract between NBC Sports and the Premier League expires at the close of the 2021/22 season, but a decision is expected to be reached in the next few months for seasons 2022/23 and beyond.
Other broadcasters are interested in acquiring the English Premier League. With ESPN+ gobbling up most of the soccer rights available in the United States, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader of Sports will assuredly be a contender too.
Meanwhile, discussions will continue this year between broadcasters and Major League Soccer. The current MLS TV deal with FOX Sports, ESPN and Univision ends in December 2022, with plenty of time for an agreement to be completed that will also include rights to the U.S. Men’s National Team and U.S. Women’s National Team games in the lead-up to the upcoming FIFA World Cup tournaments.
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