The US Soccer Federation (USSF) has sold their English-language broadcast rights to WarnerMedia, whose sports coverage is anchored by Turner Sports for the period that spans 2023 to 2030. This package includes US Men’s and Women’s National Team home matches, She Believes Cup, any potential USSF-hosted men’s national team competition (most likely in 2025) and the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, one of the oldest domestic club cup competitions on the planet. The question is, what does the Turner Sports deal mean for U.S. Soccer?
This deal is the first made individually by US Soccer in two decades, without the bundling of rights with MLS via Soccer United Marketing. The announcement will mean that absent acquiring away rights to individual US matches, or signing a deal with Concacaf, ESPN will not broadcast any US Soccer matches after 2022 for almost four years. FOX Sports’ coverage will be limited to major tournaments. CBS will continue to broadcast the Concacaf Nations League, including US matches until the end of 2023.
Recovering from the Bleacher Report debacle
While many soccer fans in the United States associate Turner with the botched B/R Live coverage of UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, (coverage that ended prematurely as the rights were transferred to CBS Sports during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic), the broadcaster has lots of positive experience in broadcasting sports.
The B/R Live experiment failed, and our sources indicate that this go-round with soccer, WarnerMedia and Turner Sports will be much more traditional with their coverage. The B/R Live branded UEFA coverage was designed to be edgy and appealing to younger fans, but it instead turned off many long-standing soccer supporters.
Presumably the move of rights to WarnerMedia beginning in 2023 will have a completely different feel than the UEFA coverage. For starters, sources indicate to us that WarnerMedia plans to use its own talent on the broadcasts rather than a world feed. Secondly, with the pending merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery networks, additional soccer experience and knowledge will be brought in-house to the merged entity.
Soccer experience overseas and in women’s soccer
It’s often forgotten in the US market, but Discovery is a major player in sports broadcasting including soccer on the European continent.
In addition, Turner did broadcast women’s soccer matches from the US in the early 2000’s, including several Atlanta Beat matches that featured Cindy Parlow Cone as a star player. Parlow Cone is now the President of US Soccer and was involved in the negotiation of this deal with WarnerMedia.
Turner Sports’ advantages over ESPN
It’s almost certain that the types of broadcast windows and bumper coverage US Soccer will find on WarnerMedia will be far superior to ESPN, which has recently taken the approach of often shoehorning programming in-between other sports. The production value and talent could also be superior to FOX Sports’ coverage, given Discovery’s experience and Turner’s own outstanding NBA, NCAA Basketball and MLB coverage.
One of the complaints recently voiced to me by a US Soccer insider about ESPN’s coverage of US Soccer, was how the She Believes Cup, an annual women’s national team competition, was given poor time slots and limited bumper coverage by ESPN. It’s ironic that a week after a US-New Zealand game was bumped up to ABC, ESPN has lost the rights to the competition.
ESPN’s inability to commit to linear programming before and after US Men’s National Team (USMNT) qualifiers as well as CBS Sports’ use of streaming to exclusively air USMNT qualifiers has created a desire among many fans for broader national team coverage on linear TV. With the announcement that TNT or TBS will televise approximately ten matches each year, TNT and TBS can provide the types of broadcast windows ESPN and CBS have failed to provide in the last six months.
What does the Turner Sports deal mean for U.S. Soccer?
Additionally, frustration about the promotion and visibility of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has reached a boiling point among many fans. WarnerMedia has the bandwidth to really promote the competition. Turner Sports’ experience with the similarly-formatted NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (a property they share with CBS Sports) also could help in how they broadcast the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
Some concerns do persist with this deal. As of press time, HBO Max is a streaming package that is not sports-specific. For many soccer fans, it’ll mean subscribing to another new streaming service. Plans start at $9.99 per month.
An additional concern is that WarnerMedia does not own its own over-the-air broadcast network, so every match will be on cable or streaming, a marked change from a recent era when FOX over-the-air network and ABC have televised US National Team matches, including friendlies, on both the men’s and women’s side.
Overall though, despite whatever qualms some fans have about WarnerMedia and Turner Sports, this deal is likely a positive development for not only the broadcaster and US Soccer, but for fans as well. WarnerMedia is likely to put substantial effort into the broadcasts, and to air matches on linear television with a robust streaming component.
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