Loss by ESPN puts dent into global soccer coverage

The soccer broadcast landscape in the U.S. abruptly shifted Friday with all the subtlety of a golden goal.

Fox won the recent two-day bidding by handing FIFA (soccer’s governing body) a check in the neighborhood of $425 million, with NBC’s Spanish-language network Telemundo forking over about $600 million. That’s a substantial increase from the previous rights agreement, which saw ESPN pay about $100 million and Univision $325 million.

Fox sports topper David Hill and president Eric Shanks have long been soccer supporters, and the money they didn’t spend in losing out to NBC on the most recent Olympics bid played a part here.

The package figures to give the broadcast side a huge bump in ratings when the World Cups roll around, and it will greatly increase the exposure of cabler Fox Soccer, which has for years been trying to make its mark with viewers and is a priority for the conglom.

Pact also reps a major coup for Telemundo, which has seen its bigger rival Univision take over Spanish-lingo soccer rights each time they were available since 1978. Telemundo had the support of NBCU in its bid this time around.

With global soccer an avowed priority at ESPN the past several years, it was surprising the behemoth sports cabler wasn’t able to extend its World Cup rights to the next two available events.

ESPN has always been about having exclusive content and owning marquee events — the cabler recently scooped Wimbledon rights from NBC, paying $400 million for 12 years — and with exec VP John Skipper such an enormous soccer proponent, the loss of future World Cups is an opportunity lost. ESPN would have liked nothing more than to have been branded the World Cup network, much as how NBC has become synonymous with the Olympics, for which it most recently paid $4.4 billion for a four-Games package through 2020.

Soccer was never a priority when Mark Shapiro ran the programming side for ESPN, but when Skipper took over, he made the sport as vital to the net’s future as any of the American four major-team sports. For example, one of Skipper’s biggest coups came when ESPN acquired the rights to Premier League soccer.As for not winning the World Cup rights, the cabler said in a statement: “We made a disciplined bid that would have been both valuable to FIFA and profitable for our company, while continuing to grow our unprecedented coverage of the World Cup and women’s World Cup events. We were aggressive while remaining prudent from a business perspective.”

Fox will not only have rights to the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cup but also the two women’s World Cup tourneys that take place from 2015-22, the time frame of the new pact.

The popularity of the women’s game shouldn’t be underestimated. This summer’s final between the U.S. and Japan drew a very healthy 13.5 million — the most ever to view a soccer match (men or women) on ESPN — and the cumulative audience for the tournament was 52 million for the net.

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