BERLIN — Disney looks set to take on Rupert Murdoch for top league German soccer as bidding opened on Friday for lucrative Bundesliga broadcast rights.
The Mouse House is reportedly planning a bid for live pay TV rights and is said to be eager to start a local ESPN sports channel to broadcast the matches.
According to well-placed sources, Disney has been in talks with German cablers Unitymedia, Kabel Deutschland and Kabel Baden-Wuerttemberg to possibly distribute a German-language ESPN channel for Bundesliga games. ESPN would likely seek to distribute a new pay TV channel on existing cable and satellite platforms.
Such a scenario would pit Disney against Murdoch, who is expected to bid for the Bundesliga in an effort to revive German pay TV platform Premiere. With a controlling 25% stake, News Corp. is Premiere’s single biggest shareholder.
The paybox has seen its share price plunge around 85% since the beginning of the year, and in early October they took a particularly steep nosedive after Premiere issued a profit warning and admitted it had nearly 1 million fewer subscribers than it had previously touted.
Bundesliga soccer is Premiere’s most vital programming asset. It currently airs Bundesliga matches under a sublicensing deal with Unitymedia, which acquired the rights in 2005. If it loses the Bundesliga to Disney, its future could be in jeopardy.
Another course would be for News Corp. and Disney to partner on the Bundesliga. The two already operate the jointly owned Asian broadcaster ESPN STAR Sports and cooperation in the face of the current economic crisis could be an attractive option.
The new rights will be awarded for three or four years, starting with the 2009/2010 season.
The DFL had hoped to get Euros 500 million ($637 million) per season from a multi-year deal with media mogul Leo Kirch, but that agreement was torpedoed by the German antitrust watchdog earlier this year.
The DFL is expected to reach an agreement with one of the bidders by the end of the year.