Reynolds Rap

Futbol Finances

6/24/2009 8:32 AM

There has been plenty of news in the soccer world of late and only some of it pertains to the U.S. national team making a dramatic comeback in the FIFA Confederations Cup and now having a chance to end Spain’s record 15-game international winning streak in the semifinals today in South Africa.

Rather, this is about rights deals and potential rights deals here and abroad, and if they somehow could all be a combination play.

In the U.S., Gol TV has engaged in a transfer fee of sorts with ESPN, sublicensing rights to Spain’s top circuit, La Liga, to the sports giant’s various holdings. In the U.K., Setanta Sports couldn’t make its right payments for the English Premier League, covering 46 matches for the upcoming 2009-10 campaign, the final year of the current TV contract. In Britain, Setanta, also unable to cover the terms of a new three-year EPL cycle through the 2012-13 season, or its Scottish Premier League contract, has entered into receivership.

ESPN, which lost on its bid earlier this year to get its boot on the footie action in the U.K., has stepped into the breach and onto the pitch for the Setanta pacts, covering a reported $211.8 million for next season and $251.9 million annually for .23 matches during each campaign during the successor deal.

Back in the colonies, Setanta Sports USA is vowing that it’s an ongoing concern and its business is usual.

Which brings us full circle to a series of rights questions.

Is Setanta, which uses EPL as a key lever for its pub business and premium sports network, carried by DirecTV, Dish, AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS and select cable systems by Cox in Northern Virginia and Comcast in New England, ready to pony up when the circuit’s rights go up for bid here in the months ahead? Setanta Sports USA currently sublicenses its domestic EPL rights from Fox Soccer Channel. (The parties are also teammates on FA Cup telecasts in the States). Setanta officials couldn’t be reached by press time.

Will ESPN, finally getting its taste of the EPL in England, have its appetite sated or whetted to bid big for U.S. access. If the Bristol behemoth were to get serious and blow FSC and Setanta out of the water and exact some measure of revenge against those parties in the process for losing the UEFA Champions League righs after 15 years here, where would the matches air — aside from on ESPN Deportes or broadband service ESPN360.com?

That’s because some of the windows on ESPN2 will be filled by La Liga action. ESPN2 will show 20 matches, which ESPN Deportes GM Lino Garcia said during an interview last week wouldn’t conflict with the Deuce’s schedule.

Translation: that means matches on Sunday mornings and maybe afternoons, but not on Saturdays in the fall, when the network presents American college football.

If ESPN were to grab the EPL here, it could presumably sublicense some rights back to FSC and Setanta and add game action on ESPN2. Or, as it tries to trade ESPNU up into ESPN Classic placements, perhaps the latter could serve as a bench player of sorts for ESPN2, which the sports programmer has established as its primary soccer vehicle over the years. Or could ESPN be thinking of kicking off its own soccer channel?

And what of Gol TV’s gambit? Financial considerations aside — published reports place its three-year La Liga renewal through the 2011-12 season at some $50 million — the soccer-centric service may have brought the fox into the henhouse.

Gol TV COO Rodrigo Lombello said during an interview that ESPN will build exposure for La Liga with both Spanish and general market audiences. Maybe. But the move could also put potential subscribers offsides.

Surely, La Liga plays some attractive ball. FC Barcelona and its likely FIFA futboler of the year Lionel Miessi, are the champs of Europe, having dethroned EPL’s Manchester United. Now, Real Madrid is intent upon establishing a new galacticos era, adding Brailian mdifleider Kaka from AC Milan and ManU’s main man Cristiano Ronaldo. Those two were FIFA top players in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

As such, La Liga no doubt has raised its game, But if 95 contests are available on Deportes and the broadband ESPN360.com service and another 20 matches will play out on ESPN2 — thus doubling the circuit’s Stateside exposure — will that prove sufficient for most casual futbol fans?

For the independent Gol’s sake, let’s hope those games will entice people to pick up the service, which is still trying to overcome its drop by Dish, on sports tiers or Hispanic packages to get a look at all of the La Liga action.

November