Lots of questions about Fox's surprising World Cup coup
ESPN had been a heavy favorite to retain the World Cup U.S. TV rights
Fox has a long way to go to catch ESPN when it comes to soccer coverage
How will the move affect the networks' coverage of MLS and U.S. Soccer?
Big news in the world of U.S. soccer came on Friday when FIFA awarded the U.S. broadcast rights for 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Fox (English language) and Telemundo (Spanish language). The Sports Business Journal reported the total rights fee for the U.S. to be between $1.05 billion and $1.1 billion, an increase of at least 147 percent over the combined $425 million that ESPN and Univisión paid for the rights to the '10 and '14 tournaments.
Fox paid a reported $450 million to $500 million to beat out ESPN and NBC for the English rights, while Telemundo is said to have paid $600 million for the Spanish rights. Here are my thoughts for now on the news:
Fox's victory over ESPN is a stunner. The incumbent ESPN was a heavy favorite to retain the World Cup rights; when I was making calls last week, nearly everyone I spoke to predicted that ESPN would walk away with the prize. Keep in mind, too, that John Skipper, ESPN's executive VP of content, is known as a soccer guy who has committed the network to more and more coverage of the sport over the past six years. (World Cup 2010 was one of ESPN's top company priorities last year.) Fox seemed the least likely of the three English-language bidders to win, since it recently lost its package of MLS and U.S. games to NBC Sports for three years starting in 2012. Instead, it now looks as though Fox is focusing its strategy on big international soccer properties, having secured the rights to the UEFA Champions League and these two World Cups.
Can Fox come close to the quality of ESPN's World Cup 2010 coverage? A lot can change in the next seven years before Fox's World Cup '18 moment: individual commentators, philosophies, even the landscape of sports television. But based on their recent treatment of the biggest soccer events (ESPN for World Cup '10 and Fox for the UEFA Champions League final), Fox has a long way to go to catch ESPN when it comes to smart, high-quality coverage of the world's most popular sport. ESPN treated viewers of South Africa 2010 like adults and never dumbed down the presentation as Fox did during this year's Champions League final with inane features on Michael Strahan comparing football and soccer and Gerard Piqué's relationship with Shakira. I'm willing to keep an open mind on Fox, but soccer watchers in America already have big issues with Fox and need to see some improvement. The possibility that Fox could provide top-flight soccer coverage like it does in Europe with Sky Sports should offer some reason for optimism.
How are MLS and U.S. Soccer affected in the big picture? One key piece of information that's still unknown is whether Fox stipulated to FIFA that it was committed to purchasing the rights for MLS and U.S. Soccer during its eight-year World Cup rights-holding period. That's what ESPN had done to help get the rights for '10 and '14 and (according to sources) had included in its bid for the '18 and '22 World Cup rights. If FIFA was simply interested in the highest-money bid regardless of a network's commitment to growing the sport in America, that could be bad news indeed for MLS and U.S. Soccer, which are tied for the next three years with ESPN and NBC thanks to their partnership contracts. Fox may well be interested in broadcasting U.S. Soccer between '15 and '22 -- the narrative of World Cup qualifying can help build the audience for their World Cup broadcasts -- but will Fox have any interest in MLS, which gets microscopic TV ratings? For that matter, will ESPN have any interest in soccer of any kind when it loses the World Cup rights post-2014?
How much will Fox push the soccer rights it now holds? Fox's first big test of its new FIFA package will be the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada. Will Fox show every WWC game live on one of its flagship channels, as ESPN did in 2011? And will Fox continue to experiment with airing marquee English Premier League games on the main Fox network, as it has been doing on occasional Sundays this season? If Fox really tries on a regular basis to increase the mainstream audience for soccer in America, Friday's news could be a great thing for the sport. The fact that Fox was willing to spend a reported $400 million to $450 million is a giant statement in itself that the World Cup has become a genuine big-time sporting even in the United States.
Andrés Cantor had a good day. The legendary Spanish-language play-by-play master known for his Goooooool calls works for Telemundo television and Fútbol de Primera radio, which both won the World Cup rights for '18 and '22 on Friday. On a personal note, Cantor's calls helped me fall in love with the sport while watching the World Cup for the first time in 1990. For Telemundo, spending a staggering $600 million to win the World Cup rights over Univisión is a game-changer for the network and a prime example of how big the Spanish-language market is becoming in the United States.