A lot of people (2 actually) have been asking what's my take on the recent announcement that Fox Sports won the "English-language US broadcast rights" to the Men's and Women's World Cups from 2015 to 2022. The package includes the men's world cups in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) and the women's world cups in Canada (2015) and TBD (2019) along with the FIFA Confederations Cups in between. What this means is that the World Cup in Brazil (2014) will be the last broadcasted on the ESPN/ABC networks until well into the next decade. ESPN/ABC have held the FIFA rights dating back to the World Cup hosted in the United States (1994), so to say there has been a changing of the guard is a bit of an understatement. So what does this all mean? Although the American soccer fan and MLS followers are a bit frantic over this move, I think it might be a great opportunity for soccer in America and here's why.
Let's look at the numbers of the deal first in comparison to the previous package.
FIFA English-Language US Rights, 2010-2014: ESPN/ABC paid $100M
FIFA English-Language US Rights, 2015-2022: Fox paid $425M
FIFA Spanish Language US Rights, 2010-2014: Univision paid $325M
FIFA Spanish Language US Rights, 2015-2022: Telemundo paid $600M
Here's the good news, at least NBC didn't win the rights. Could you imagine a much older Bob Costas trying to dumb down "the beautiful game" to NBC-level of comprehension? NBC is good at the Olympics, but that's because the 90% of the events don't exist (for all intent and purposes) in the 4 years between the games. Where NBC can get away with dumbing-down sports like curling and dressage so the lay person can appreciate the event, soccer is unique that it captures the year-round passion of millions of people. Fox learned this lesson the hard way during their coverage of the UEFA Champions League this spring when Michael Strahan tried to explain the differences between football and soccer to a level that only a 2nd grader could appreciate. Although NBC recently acquired the rights to MLS broadcasts from 2012-2015, one could hardly expect "the peacock" to push soccer to the forefront of its sports line-up; but enough with the NBC bashing.
When ESPN's 20 year run as FIFA broadcast rights holder ends in 2014, it will be a time of major transition for the soccer in this country. Back in 1994, soccer was a sport played by other countries and the US just happened to have a team and was hosting the World Cup. Soccer was a bit of a sideshow at that time; MLS didn't exist, there was zero coverage of European teams, and ESPN2 had just started broadcasting. Today soccer has carved out a permanent sector of the US sports television market and ESPN's commitment to the sport during that time is to thank for this success. ESPN was able to keep the public's interest in France (1998) even with a bad US team. They were able to balance the 2am live broadcasts for Korea/Japan (2002) with replays during primetime hours. They also were able to seamlessly integrate all of the matches in 2010 into ESPN2 and ESPN3 coverage for diehard fans. When Brazil arrives in 2014 the internet rights (included in the FIFA package) may be approaching the advertising value of the television rights. Keep in mind that Brazil is in a "friendly" time zone for US coverage, most of the matches will be live in the afternoon and primetime, but Russia and Qatar are going to present a challenge for Fox. The matches will all occur during the morning and daytime hours which means that Fox will have to rely on delayed primetime matches, much like ESPN/ABC did with South Africa (2010). To pull in the core fans, Fox will have to improve their foxsoccer.tv system to a level at or beyond ESPN3.com. Right now, fs.tv is weak with frequent crashes and numerous buffering interruptions regardless of your connection. It has gotten better, but it still isn't integrated across the Fox Sports platform like ESPN3 is to ESPN.
I might be in the minority of people looking forward to Fox's coverage of the World Cup. Every sport that Fox has picked up over the last 20 years, they have improved the television experience and have forced the other networks to improve their coverage. The NFL in 1994, MLB in 1996, NASCAR in 2001; maybe with the exception of the NHL (with the blue-streaking puck tracker) Fox modernized the way sports are covered in America. Even before winning the FIFA bid last week, Fox had already taken the calculated risk of replaying English Premier League matches from Sunday morning on Fox adjacent to their NFL coverage on Sunday afternoons. I would not be surprised next season to see live Sunday morning EPL matches be broadcast on Fox (in lieu of FS and FS+). That would be a true olive branch extended to the hard core soccer fans because it would be show the networks commitment to the sport leading into their FIFA contract. Just this season alone, Fox has rebranded Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer plus with new graphics, logos, and an expensive studio in Hollywood (which shares the sound stage with NFL on Fox). The broadcasters, like Ian Darke and Martin Tyler, that ESPN have made house-hold names with their FIFA coverage will be replaced with the next generation of color-men for matches. Fox already has a great studio team and with the addition of one of two great play-by-play guys from Europe or South America, they should be able to equal or exceed ESPN's legacy.
What do you think about Fox winning the FIFA rights to 2015-2022? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.