Soccer Rights Will Score Points With Streaming Services

Soccer Streaming Rights
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Note: This analysis is based upon data taken from Variety Intelligence Platform’s “Sports’ New TV Formula” special report, available exclusively for subscribers.

When NBCU’s Peacock service launched in July, it turned to soccer to make the biggest splash it could. With Peacock originals delayed due to COVID-19, and the suspension of the Olympics, the English Premier League was the one Peacock subscriber-exclusive that was available.

Peacock was not the first streaming service to rely on soccer to boost subscriptions, and it won’t be the last. ESPN+ and B/R Live have tried this route, to varying degrees of success. CBS announced in November 2019 that CBS All Access was to be the new home of the UEFA Champions League from 2021, and it gained early access to the tournament in 2020 when B/R Live canceled its contract amidst the pandemic.

CBS CEO George Cheeks said during the Paramount+ unveiling that the UEFA Champions League had been one of the key drivers in new subscriptions in recent months. This contrasts with the fortunes of WarnerMedia’s B/R Live service and points to a consumer challenge facing any would-be sports streamer.

If smaller sports are part of a wide-ranging general service like Peacock or Paramount+, then shelling out to watch is more palatable, given the value perception of the platform. A service that is already down to the bare bones and is asking for consumers to pay solely for access to one particular set of rights will find it a lot tougher, as B/R Live discovered.

Giddy with the success the marquee UEFA tournament brought them, Paramount+ hoovered up the few English-language soccer rights not available on cable or streaming. These are not Champions League equivalents to move the needle in their own right but instead offer Paramount+ soccer fans more games to watch.

If the Brazilian and Argentine leagues see sizable audiences among Champions League viewers on Paramount+, this could lead to a deal made with Qatar-based beIN Sports for streaming rights to the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, and even the Spanish La Liga. ViacomCBS has had past dealings with beIN Media for a stake in beIN’s Miramax studio; seeing a similar deal for the sports network is something to watch for.

Paramount+ also recently announced the capture of Italian Serie A rights from ESPN+, with the deal arguably pointing to a soccer-rights bubble heating up. Unlike the Premier League, Serie A has few international draws, with the biggest two players in the league aging superstars Cristiano Ronaldo (age 36 and rumored to want to leave the league) and Zlatan Ibrahamovic (40 in October).

ViacomCBS paid 55.6% extra per year, a total of $74.67m annually, to bring Serie A to the platform. ESPN+ has data on current Serie A viewership, and likely found it didn’t bring many new subscribers or provide added-value for existing subscribers for the premium the league wanted.

Should ViacomCBS treat Serie A as a priority, with better commentary and analysis–ESPN+ often has one-man monotonous commentators and little pre, during and post-game analysis for its soccer coverage–it’s possible that viewership and interest will grow.

This also pretty much rules Paramount+ out of the running for Premier League rights, as Serie A games are often in direct competition with the Premier League. It should also be noted that the current Premier League deal expiring in 2022 is already more than double that of the new Serie A deal, suggesting that Serie A is less of a draw than the EPL stateside.

Despite the pending loss of Serie A, ESPN+ has also relied on soccer rights to boost its service and attract new subscribers, buying both new rights such as the Bundesliga, and moving rights that previously were available on ESPN to mainly being on ESPN+.

While the soccer rights business is dwarfed by domestic-league equivalents in other sports, it is estimated to be worth over $1 billion annually in the U.S. alone, and it’s heating up. With Paramount+ snatching up the rights to the Italian Series A, there remain six packages up for renewal in the next two years, including big hitters in the Premier League and the MLS.

The Premier League was reportedly not informed by NBCU that NBCSN was closing and was already upset that marquee games were on Peacock instead of NBC. That would suggest that the EPL values maximum exposure ahead of making a quick buck and will not be an exclusive franchise on which a streaming service should pin its hopes.

The MLS has no such compunctions. Commissioner Don Garber is on record as expecting a bumper increase for the next rights deal, with VIP’s prediction that Peacock will enter the MLS fray in order to procure some exclusive rights for Peacock Premium as it has to multicast key EPL games on NBC and Peacock Free. Seeing Peacock also bid for some of the other English soccer rights that will be available, like the FA Cup, is also a move to expect.

Don’t forget, the U.S. is co-hosting the 2026 World Cup (expect to see the World Cup Final airing on Fox and streaming on Tubi). Interest in soccer will boom, just like in 1994, and savvy streaming services will stock up now ahead of the anticipated growth, with more service switches like Serie A likely.

Read the full special report