It’s official: we are in the middle of a massive paradigm shift in the world of sports, and especially in how soccer is consumed in this country. Don’t believe me? With one exception that I bet won’t stay an exception for long, the top European leagues are now aligned with a network that didn’t exist a few months ago and an entity that didn’t have any soccer presence outside the Olympics a year ago.
I was somewhat shocked to find NBC bidding so aggressively that the Premier League reportedly told the incumbents, Fox and ESPN, late last week not to even bother showing up with a bid. Without the World Cup, with MLS for only two more years, with Formula 1 recently added to its portfolio, and with its dreams of competing with ESPN looking to be on life support, I didn’t think NBC had much motivation to make an aggressive bid for the Premier League.
In the end, though, after reading the announcement, I have to figure the deciding factor was the same one I thought might land NBC the World Cup but didn’t: NBC’s Spanish language presence. I get the impression the Premier League was never going to split up the English and Spanish language rights the way FIFA was willing to, and as a result, I have to imagine a big chunk of NBC’s bid – triple what Fox and ESPN’s joint bid was – was more to land Premier League rights for Telemundo and mun2 than for NBC Sports Network. Compared to most soccer rights, the Premier League has a disproportionately English-language audience in the United States, but it is still one of the two best soccer leagues in the world with multiple major teams, which I have to imagine still makes it a huge draw for Spanish-language eyeballs as well.
It sounds like NBC could make a concerted effort to put games on as many platforms as possible on a regular basis, including substantially more live games on the broadcast network than Fox was willing to show (maybe even involving teams not named Manchester United!), as well as CNBC, MSNBC, and maybe even Bravo or on a pay-per-view package, which could help resolve any Formula 1 conflicts; I can’t help but wonder whether Universal Sports might end up being an option, and whether or not it is could hint at the long-term plans for that network. (I’m very surprised to see USA even be brought up after NBC semi-publicly dropped all non-dog show sports programming from that network. Whether or not Comcast SportsNet might pick up Premier League games would be a very interesting possibility, fraught with plenty of political implications.)
I think this sends a pointed message that NBC has every intent on taking over the unified MLS package when that comes up in another year, possibly in both English and Spanish as well – although the Premier League deal will only coincide with a unified MLS deal for another year. As for the other contenders, while ESPN made noise about its continued commitment to soccer after losing the World Cup, I don’t see them as very motivated at all to hang on to MLS and US National Team rights, certainly compared to NBC and Fox; certainly this, combined with the earlier loss of UK Premier League rights, must make it a lot harder for them to hold on to Ian Darke and other English soccer announcers after the 2014 World Cup.
Perhaps the biggest impact, though, might be to Fox. What little chance there might have been that Fox wasn’t going to launch an all-sports network is gone now, and in all likelihood it’s going to launch at least two. Fox Soccer has lost almost all the programming that was worth it maintaining a separate identity; while Fox still has the Champions League and World Cup, they don’t do nearly as much to support the network as the Premier League did, and could easily survive the transition to a system of all-sports networks, while whatever else is left of Fox’s soccer programming might be kindly described as scraps. There is no reason for Fox to maintain Fox Soccer as a shell of its former self, and I fully expect Fox to be running at least one all-sports network by August 2013.
Without knowing how much beIN Sport bid, I have no way of knowing how much of this is NBC overbidding or ESPN and Fox underbidding. If NBC overbid, I have to wonder what their priorities are, as well as their grasp of the big picture given the F1 problem; some of Mark Lazarus’ comments in the SI interview linked above suggest NBC has become resigned to its third-place status and wants to carve a niche for the NBC Sports Network in the international sports scene (which again makes me wonder what the role of Universal Sports might be long-term). But if ESPN and Fox underbid, that would tell me that Fox may have already set its sights on transitioning Fox Soccer away from its soccer identity and was more concerned about dumping sport-specific network rights F1-style than anything else, even if the Premier League would have been valuable enough programming to add considerably to the value of a general Fox Sports network. Fox may have driven the final nail in Fox Soccer’s coffin itself.