Last week, the news was confirmed that CBS Sports has won the rights for Serie A in the United States from the 2021-22 season to the 2023-24 season. The bulk of matches will air on ViacomCBS streaming platform Paramount+ with limited matches airing on CBS Sports Network. Included in the deal are the rights to Coppa Italia, which had been part of a separate rights package in the U.S. market previously, and the Supercoppa Italiana.
ESPN, which has aired both Serie A and the Coppa Italia competition the last three seasons, has made an effort to push the league on its linear platforms, showing over 30 Serie A matches a season on television in addition to occasional Coppa Italia ties. But it can be strongly argued that ESPN, like every other U.S. broadcaster that aired Serie A, has had other priorities in soccer from a marketing standpoint.
The reality is that Serie A has been passed around U.S. broadcasters like a hot potato. The league remains prominent enough to consistently elicit interest from those who don’t have the rights, but apparently limited in its upside to convince broadcasters to go the extra mile to promote it and maintain rights at all costs.
So what does CBS need to do to make Serie A a more visible property in the landscape of broadcast sports in the U.S. and soccer in general in this country?
Maintain high standards set on UEFA and NWSL Coverage
CBS has largely wowed the U.S. audience with its extensive coverage of both European club competitions and NWSL. After years of not bothering with soccer, the broadcaster has dived head first into the sport, acquiring properties at a frenzied pace. But as we’ve seen in the past with other networks, saturation of properties can either lead to critical mass creating great overall coverage, or some properties being neglected in favor of others.
For Serie A on CBS Sports to be successful they must maintain the similar standards to what they have established for the UEFA Champions League. That won’t be easy and will require acquiring broadcast on-air talent with a specific expertise in Italian football.
Like ESPN, CBS needs to have in-depth prematch shows for the biggest matches and some sort of halftime and post match production. Using the world feed for matches is fine but that should not substitute for bumper programming.
ESPN improved the bumper show coverage of Serie A. Previous rights-holder beIN SPORTS generally crammed Serie A matches in between shows that focused predominantly on La Liga. However, whether or not ESPN had dedicated pre and post match coverage as well as an active halftime studio were left to arbitrary decision making. Usually it required a big match and coupled with no other big soccer-related event being on ESPN’s family of networks the same day.
CBS can do better by dedicating itself to giving Serie A a dedicated studio program be it on CBS Sports HQ or directly on Paramount+ or CBS Sports Network around every league matchday.
CBS Sports will have to make a decision regarding where to locate its Serie A studio. A London studio, which has been used for UEFA club competitions, might be more attractive because of the large number of broadcast media talent that lives in and around the United Kingdom capital. But it should be noted CBS might have a difficult time securing some of the talent they use on Champions League matches as most have obligations with other broadcasters on the weekends.
Another option is to have the studio in the New York area using some of the talent already on display at CBS Sports HQ. This might give the broadcasts a more American feel, but also attract new talent from various points domestically.
My hunch is that CBS Sports will use London as its base for Serie A and all future European competitions the network airs. This will also put CBS in close proximity to the commentators that IMG uses on the international English language world feed for the league. It may give CBS the opportunity to use some of those commentators on days they are not calling matches for the world feed.
Promote across its platforms
CBS Sports has historically had a stronger web presence than FOX, beIN SPORTS and NBC Sports divisions. In addition, CBS Sports HQ‘s 24 hour news service has created a strong brand in discussing soccer in a similar vein as ESPN’s studio and sports news programming.
Paramount+ has a clunky interface, yet it’s been fairly easy to locate UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches since the new app launched in early March. Additionally, NWSL coverage is already prominently advertised within the app. Giving Serie A similar treatment will be of the essence.
Serie A fans in the United States tend to be very clannish in terms of how they consume coverage. They demand a dedicated coverage and promotion scheme. CBS has the bandwidth to deliver on this in ways most broadcasters cannot.
Use CBS Sports linear broadcast windows
While ESPN showed one Serie A match a week on linear television, often those matches were poorly promoted early morning Sunday showdowns, which only involved top teams about half of the time. So while ESPN may end up airing more matches on TV than CBS plans, it is very possible that CBS could improve Serie A’s visibility based on when they air games.
As of now, It appears that CBS has three major network sporting priorities in the following order: the NFL, golf and NCAA basketball.
Weekly PGA Tour events generally attract solid television viewership and as soccer fans are well aware, the one circumstance where Premier League matches have been consistently bumped from NBC’s over-the-air channel is when conflicts with golf occur.
So on the surface, it might appear that CBS over-the-air network will have little opportunity to show Serie A. But perhaps that is not the case. The ratings for regular season college basketball have been declining in recent years as the “one-and-done” rule and shoe scandal have taken a toll on interest outside the NCAA Tournament. So in January and February, CBS might be tempted to place a big Serie A matchup with title implications.
During the last several seasons, we have regularly seen Premier League matches on NBC in the 12:30PM ET time slot out-do CBS college basketball regular season games in terms of overall viewership numbers. The drift of college basketball to a niche sport based around the month of March has opened the door for European soccer to compete effectively with it head-to-head outside of March. This very much could weigh into CBS long-term thinking with Serie A and soccer in general.
While CBS shows golf regularly, there are also weekends where NBC shows the weekly PGA Tour stop. Therefore, if the timing is right, CBS could always air a matchup in April or May.
As for CBS Sports Network, programming is often light on weekend mornings, so showing Serie A in a more visible time slot than what has been the case on ESPN’s networks is possible.
It’s imperative that Paramount+ adds the promised functionality to pause and rewind live games, to improve the overall user experience. The sooner that happens, the better — especially with the 2021/22 Serie A season scheduled to begin in August 2021.
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