No Thursday Night Football? No problem: just go after a different football. The three major contenders in the sports TV wars will square off this week to pick up the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. ESPN will be looking to defend its World Cup incumbency, arguably its biggest non-NFL, non-BCS event, from the assault of NBC and Fox, two entities looking to shore up their soccer presence in the wake of NBC’s pick-up of an MLS contract.
Apparently, Dick Ebersol had a deal in place for NBC to take over the World Cup starting last year in 2005, but lost it partly because it had no interest in broadcasting soccer the rest of the year. NBC is in a different situation now, and in fact would like to make MLS less of an outlier on NBC and its sports network; other than the Olympics, NBC Sports hasn’t shown basically any of the sport. For NBC, it’s relevant that this contract will also be for two Women’s World Cups and other FIFA programming, to further fill out NBCSN’s schedule and build its soccer credibility. As with the Olympics, though, I don’t think the World Cup is the killer app NBCSN is looking for; one month every four years will not get it done, even in conjunction with the Olympics. I think that fact will depress how much NBC is willing to bid.
If NBC is trying to shore up its MLS programming, Fox is trying to make up for the loss of it. Fox has built its brand as one of the premier homes of soccer through its Fox Soccer channel, which has resulted in some matches airing on FSN, FX, and even the Fox network; the World Cup would be the crowning achievement of this trend. Fox Soccer is in half as many homes as NBCSN, but I would expect most non-Fox matches to air on FX, at least for the main men’s World Cup. The other competitions would be valuable programming for Fox Soccer, especially during a part of the schedule that will be even more dead with MLS leaving.
My guess is that ESPN has better than even odds of retaining the contract, given their demonstrated commitment to the sport. If ESPN loses the contract, I would make NBC the favorite over Fox. The World Cup will not grow Versus that much and Fox has a more established soccer infrastructure, but NBC still needs the Cup more, and I think losing MLS will kill Fox’s bid as much as motivate it, given FIFA’s desire that the winner promote soccer in this country through airing US National Team and MLS matches. (Also, without MLS Fox is much more likely to simply pull commentary from the English feed, something that might be verboten, certainly with soccer fans.) For that same reason, I would expect this fight to be a harbinger of who will take the MLS contract in full in a few years; the winner of this fight could be the odds-on favorite.
There is one more development to speak of, and it’s a little surprising. Since it started airing French Open matches, Tennis Channel has actually been the lead rights-holder, with ESPN2 coming along for the ride. Now Tennis Channel has renewed its deal for the next decade, and it will be the lead rights-holder for real, with ESPN2 being relegated to early-morning and other backup coverage.