Monday, July 28, 2014
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Source: NBC Sports to bid on UEFA Champions League rights

NBC Sports' forays into soccer broadcasting have proven successful enough thus far that the Comcast-owned property is looking to expand its portfolio within the world's game.

Source: NBC Sports to bid on UEFA Champions League rights

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Arjen Robben helped Bayern Munich win the UEFA Champions League last season. (Alastair Grant/AP file photo)
Arjen Robben helped Bayern Munich win the UEFA Champions League last season. (Alastair Grant/AP file photo)

Updated on Monday, December 2: World Soccer Talk reports that UEFA will split its Champions League and Europa League bidding into separate English and Spanish packages. This means that there will be four packages to be won, increasing the possibility that the packages will be spread across multiple networks.

It could bring Univision into the fold, but I'm not sure how they'd handle that much inventory, and Univision Deportes doesn't have enough carriage yet.

Also of consequence is an excerpt from a confidential bid instruction document which states that UEFA is not obligated to select the highest bidder. That could knock beIN Sport out of the picture.

Now back to the original post, which was published Saturday, November 30.

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NBC Sports' forays into soccer broadcasting have proven successful enough thus far that the Comcast-owned property is looking to expand its portfolio within the world's game. 

A source with direct knowledge of the situation confirmed to me that NBC will be among the next round of UEFA Champions League broadcast rights in the United States. The Peacock will be competing against incumbent rights-holder Fox. It's my understanding that ESPN will also bid to regain rights that it held from 1994 until 2009. 

Next week, UEFA - the governing body of European soccer - will begin considering bids for a deal that will run from the 2015-16 season through 2017-18. The invitation to tender bids was issued in mid-November, and bids must be submitted by December 3. 

The NBC Sports Group is currently the sole American rights-holder for the English Premier League across all languages, and the secondary rights-holder for English-language Major League Soccer broadcasts. 

Fox Sports Group is the sole U.S. television rights-holder for the Champions League in both English and Spanish. Games air in English on three national cable channels in English - Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and Fox Soccer Plus - with games also sometimes airing on Fox Sports Net regional networks. Games air in Spanish on Fox Deportes. 

Fox also has exclusive mobile and online rights for the Fox Soccer 2 Go website and suite of apps. Every game is accessible online, but the package requires a $14.99 per month subscription fee. NBC's Live Extra streaming platform is free of charge, but requires authentication through participating pay-TV providers. 

Fox launched its own free authentication-based platform, Fox Sports Go, during the summer. But its rollout has been slow. The network plans to have all broadcasts from Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and regional affiliates through the platform. Right now, however, you can only watch whichever of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 are available in your pay-TV subscription. 

I do not know if there are plans to move the Fox Soccer 2 Go content over to the Fox Sports Go platform. I haven't heard anything about that, but will try to find out. 

Fox has held Champions League rights since 2009, when it knocked ESPN off a perch it had held since 1994. Fox first out-bid ESPN for the 2010 through 2012 cycle, then re-upped for the 2013 through 2015 cycle

ESPN finally got a toehold back into the Champions League this week, when it signed a sub-license deal with Fox to broadcast live games in Spanish on ESPN Deportes Radio. Otherwise, ESPN only has the rights to show game highlights on studio shows, such as SportsCenter and ESPN FC. 

Of course, ESPN is best-known as the longtime holder of the English-language FIFA contract in the United States. ESPN and ABC have broadcast every World Cup since 1994, and previously showed games in 1982 and 1970. ESPN also has deals with UEFA for the European Championship and youth national team tournaments, as well as European Championship and World Cup qualifying. 

UEFA tenders that contract separately from the Champions League. The UEFA Europa League is also tendered separately, which is why ESPN has Spanish-language broadcast rights for that competition. Bidding for the next Europa League package - which has the same 2015-18 window as the Champions League package - will also take place next week. 

And of course, ESPN is the primary English-language rights-holder for Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation, which come as a package deal. The current contract runs through the 2014 season, with negotiations for 2015 and beyond currently underway. In addition, ESPN has a deal with the Mexican national team for English-language rights to games played in Mexico and the United States. 

I bring all of this up because ESPN will lose the FIFA contract after next year's World Cup in Brazil. While the network will continue to have some soccer rights, it will lose the biggest cash cow in terms of both rights fee cost and television ratings. The second-biggest cash cow is the Premier League, and ESPN (which had a joint contract in place with Fox) lost that to NBC this year

So it would make some sense if ESPN decided to go in hard on getting the Champions League back. And indeed, it's my understanding that ESPN will tender a bid. But just how much of a bid is unknown - and may well not be known, given the often-secretive nature of global television rights deals. 

Consider that ESPN bid $100 million for the combined rights to the 2010 and 2014 FIFA cycles. Fox bid $425 million for the 2018 and 2022 cycles. In a statement issued after ESPN lost the 2018-22 round, the network said it “made a disciplined bid that would have been both valuable to FIFA and profitable for our company.” If ESPN adopts that approach again and Fox or NBC really goes all-in, Bristol could lose again. 

NBC has certainly gone all-in on soccer in general. In addition to its MLS and EPL deals, NBC won Spanish-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 FIFA cycles for Telemundo. NBC bid for English rights for that cycle, but came up short of Fox. If NBC wins Champions League rights, it's my understanding that the package would be given plenty of space on the network's television and online platforms.

It certainly helps that games take place on weekdays, with kickoff times that fall in the middle of the afternoon in the United States. Live sports content is of value at any time of day, and the Champions League has clearly found an American audience during its timeslots.

If ESPN wins the rights back, we can all guess pretty easily how it would turn out. There's plenty of space for games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNews, as well as online. The WatchESPN platform - which uses a combination of pay-TV and internet provider authentication for various levels of service - would make streams of games easy to access. 

And if Fox wins, soccer fans have had more than enough experience with them to know what at least their minimum service would be on television and online. If all of the soccer streams move to Fox Sports Go, that would make things even easier - at least for those fans whose pay-TV providers offer access. 

In addition to ESPN, Fox and NBC, there's also the potential for beIN Sport to bid for Champions League rights. The network, owned by Qatar-based al-Jazeera, has quickly swept up a wide collection of worldwide soccer rights since it launched last year. And it has a authentication-based streaming platform, beIN Sport Play, though it has struggled to gain traction. 

We know that beIN lost to NBC in the bidding for for Premier League rights. But we don't know how much the network bid, because it does its business much more secretively than the mainstream American networks. In the long run, beIN will never lack for money if there's something it really wants. We'll see if that has an effect on the Champions League sweepstakes. 

For now, we know the race has three entrants. The starting gun gets fired on Tuesday. We'll find out soon enough who crosses the finish line first.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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