Much Left To Wonder About World Cup Rights Deals

Last week, Fox and Telemundo gained the U.S. media rights to top FIFA events from 2015 through 2022, highlighted by the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018 and Qatar four years thereafter.

It was an upset — perhaps not as big as the U.S. topping England 1-0 in the group stage during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil — because money and FIFA president Sepp Blatter were involved.

Still, for more than $1 billion in outlays for those two events, plus the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cups and a host of U-17 and U-20 competitions, one would think there could have been a few more definitive answers about future telecast plans from the new rights-holders.

Or at a minimum there should have been some of the usual platitudes, thanking ESPN and Univision, which will continue to air FIFA’s events through the 2014 World Cup tourney in Brazil, and welcoming and expressing confidence that the newcomers will help FIFA to continue to grow the game…blah, blah, blather, blather, blatter, blatter.

Instead, after reports began surfacing around 11 a.m. on Oct. 23 that Fox and Telemundo had unseated the incumbents, FIFA wouldn’t allow the winners to officially declare their new futbol fortunes until 5 p.m. (ET). And when FIFA did, a three-paragraph statement was all the sport’s international governing body could muster.

FIFA was focused on, as one apologist pointed out,  its Executive Committee meeting and subsequent press conference, which addressed ethics, reforms, transparency, corruption, the establishment of a good governance committee, the withholding of ISL dossier information until December, and featured Blatter parrying whether he had ever considered resigning from the scandal-ridden organization.

Or as some wagged– just another day at headquarters in Zurich.

But it’s not every day, even at FIFA — whose current $425 million contracts with ESPN ($100 million) and Univision ($325 million) had represented its top media rights deals to that point — that a new record haul of more than $1.1 billion –$425 million to $450 million by Fox, $600 million from Telemundo and another $100 million by Futbol de Primera Radio for Spanish-language radio rights — comes in the door. And surely, Blatter’s side could have used a respite from reporters’ repeated inquiries centering on the organisation’s array of “reputational” woes.

FIFA’s bad timing and poor form didn’t provide executives from Fox and NBCUniversal’s Telemundo, who had traveled to Switzerland for what turned out to be a two-day bidding process, with a chance to properly celebrate their triumphs, talk up the exhilaration about presenting the globe’s biggest sporting event and allude to the attendant business opportunities thereunto. Or maximize press coverage of the same back in the States.

If you’ve indulged this Blatter blather thus far, please read a little further because FIFA’s cone of silence and the many years until these events transpire leave many questions unanswered about the winners, losers and Stateside futbol over the next decade.

Must-Win For NBCU. Sources familiar with the process say the NBC Sports Group made a bid that included the Spanish-language broadcaster in the mix, as well as an individual play for Telemundo, which was really NBCU’s corporate priority in its pitch.

Long a distant second to Univision, which given the rise of the Latino populace in the U.S. often tops the Big 4 broadcast network with the 18-to-34 set, Telemundo, with the FIFA fare, figures to attract more viewers who will presumably sample its entertainment fare.

The move could also serve to increase the value of the signals of its owned stations for retransmission-consent revenue, and perhaps sway affiliate switches and help bridge the homes gap — Univision reaches 97% of Spanish-language, versus 93% for Telemundo.

Fox Steps Up. The company really put its best boots forward of late. With Fox and FX presenting marquee matches from the UEFA Champions League and action from the Barclays Premier League — recent English circuit encores on the broadcast network delivered quite well on Sundays versus CBS’s NFL windows — may have signaled to FIFA just how serious News Corp. is about the world’s game here in the States.

With the FIFA additions, Champions League, BPL and Italy’s Serie A, it’s easy to argue that Fox has the best soccer stable in the States. Logically, those holdings certainly should build distribution and value — it currently collects some 17 cents monthly subscriber fee — for Fox Soccer over time. The programmer also can up its digital and mobile game with its FIFA rights score.

Matches On Cable? That being said, one has to wonder how many, if any, of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup matches will appear on cable? Fox Soccer counts some 40 million subscribers, and the promise of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup should help that base grow substantially. But FX holds an almost 60-million home edge and the dedicated soccer channel faces a 75 million-home deficit versus the broadcast network, which, given the tourneys usual June kickoff, shouldn’t face any major entertainment entanglements, following the end of the TV season.

Similarly, if Telemundo mirrors the game plan deployed by Univision, none of the matches would appear live on cable. During the 2010 World Cup, Univision premiered all of the matches from South Africa live, with encores appearing on broadcast brethren TeleFutura and cable network Galavision.

One might expect 35-million home mun 2 to host other FIFA events, perhaps even some Women’s World Cup action, and tons of shoulder programming — Fox Soccer and premium Fox Soccer Plus figure to get World Cup-centric, too, on the English-language side — but all or most of the main matches will premiere on Telemundo.

MLS Musings.Fox inked a one-year deal for the domestic league’s current season in February, but Comcast’s NBC and Versus netted what was de facto that package for the 2012-14 campaigns this August, flanking those held by ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, Univision, TeleFutura and Galavision. All of the MLS contracts are now co-terminus.

Televising MLS, which enjoyed its best ever season at the gate since its 1996 kickoff , but still yields anemic ratings, was part of ESPN’s current FIFA contract and was reportedly part of its bid for the 2015-22 cycle of events. It’s hard to imagine that Fox’s and Telemundo’s winning plays don’t include similar MLS pledges.

And one has to wonder about future rights to the U.S. national team, which are controlled by the U.S. Soccer Federation and largely held by ESPN, as well.

Joga Bonita. Univision and ESPN’s FIFA contracts conclude with the 2014 men’s tourney in 2014. Given a time-difference that’s two hours ahead of America’s east coast, a number of the matches will fall into primetime. If the U.S. and Mexico qualify and advance past the group stage, ESPN and Univision should easily set ratings records.

Finances aside — ESPN’s $100 million for FIFA events from 2007-2014 is a relative pittance compared to many of its other rights gambits — Brazil figures to be the top Cup. Russia and Qatar don’t match up as favorably on the time zone differential, sponsor interest or merely as an attractive destination.

If you have to leave the World Cup stage for a while, Brazil is a pretty good one to go out on.

Whither ESPN? In acknowledging that it came up short — ESPN reportedly upped its initial ante from $350 million to $400 million — the worldwide leader said it made a disciplined bid that was aggressive, yet prudent and that it remains committed to presenting the sport at the highest level — Euro 2012, BPL, La Liga,, MLS and the 2014 World Cup — across various platforms.

At this point, ESPN sublicenses the rights from the top two European leagues from Fox Soccer and Gol TV, respectively. Gol’s La Liga contract ends after this season, while Fox’s BPL deal does following the 2013 campaign. As mentioned, all of the MLS contracts finish following the 2014 season. Without the World Cup as a kicker, will ESPN really stay in the game?

If it does, will it be content to maintain its current positioning with the European circuits? Or will it step up its game and outbid its current partners, controlling the play in the upcoming auction cycle or beyond? Can it,  given its commitment to American college football shoulder and game programming on Saturdays and NFL previews on Sunday mornings? At the same time, broadband service ESPN3 is a beast that needs constant feeding and ESPN Classic could become home to soccer programming. On top of everything, executive vice president of content John Skipper is a big fan of the sport and certainly has helped increase its popularity in this nation.

For those who don’t know, round, but dimpled soccer balls can be made to swerve depending on how they’re struck. The same holds true for media rights and the company’s that hold them over any particular length of time. Let’s check back in a few years and see how the sport is bouncing in the U.S.