ViacomCBS Nabs Early Access to UEFA Champions League in Bid to Spur Streaming

UEFA Champions League Final 2017 Juventus

Can extra soccer games kick ViacomCBS more directly into TV’s streaming wars?

ViacomCBS picked up an extra run of UEFA Champions League games in a deal that will put the European soccer organization’s tournaments on broadcast, cable, and, perhaps most important, streaming at a time when the media conglomerate is trying to spur new interest in its “All Access” subscription-video hub.

The games will bring “an audience that maybe in the past hasn’t been that heavily involved with CBS programming,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in an interview. “These are soccer fans who by and large represent a very young and very diverse audience – and probably a different audience than we have seen in the past.”

Under the terms of the agreement, ViacomCBS, which had previously agreed to a three-year deal with UEFA that was slated to start with the 2021-2022 season, will pick up coverage starting in August – the direct result of AT&T’s Turner Sports opting to extricate itself about a month ago from its current deal with the league, which had stopped play due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the last term of its contract. ViacomCBS will now serve as the exclusive English-language broadcaster of UEFA Champions League through 2024.

CBS All Access will stream every UEFA club competition match, while the CBS broadcast network and cable’s CBS Sports Network will air top games. The contract adds “tonnage” to the company’s streaming effort just as it’s trying to expand that service to be a more robust competitor with NBCUniversal’s Peacock, Walt Disney’s Hulu and other subscription-video outlets, says Marc Debevoise, chief digital officer of ViacomCBS, in an interview. “We are very committed to being a combined on-demand and live-streaming service including big sports,” he adds.

European soccer will potentially bring new audiences to ViacomCBS, but it also brings some challenges. The games can be difficult to monetize on TV, because the matches typically feature fewer in-game opportunities for commercials than American sports broadcasts.

Coverage is set to start with the remaining 16 matches from the 2019-200 season, with post-season play/ Ever game will steam on CBS All Access and select matches will appear on CBS Sports Network. ViacomCBS plans to provide “whip-around” coverage of matches during knockout rounds and primetime replays on CBS Sports Network, along with archival matches.

CBS Sports has been assured the league is ready to play in August despite the worldwide effects of the coronavirus pandemic, says McManus, though no one has visibility at present on game play for next year. “It is full steam ahead for the August tournament,” says McManus. “I don’t have specifics about their safety protocols or procedures, but we have been told they are going to be playing their matches.”

This marks the second time in recent weeks that a major U.S. broadcaster has dropped a contract with a sports league. Fox Sports in late June terminated what had been slated to be a 12-year deal for rights to broadcast golf tournaments from the U.S. Golf Association. But the games weren’t driving big ratings, and the pandemic forced the shift of some golf to fall, when Fox has big, costly commitments to NFL football telecasts. NBC Sports picked up the remainder of the contract at a significant discount to what Fox had agreed to pay.