A quartet of Fox properties will cast a wider net of coverage over the UEFA Champions League, beginning in August.
Covering the 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 tourneys, Fox Soccer Channel, FSN owned -and-affiliated regional sports networks, Fox Sports en Espanol and FX, slated to air the title game on a Saturday for the first time on May 22, 2010, will combine to present the entire 146-game tournament, plus the UEFA Super Cup Final, in the U.S. for the first time.
Through a joint blind bid, Fox Sports International and Setanta Sports USA unseated ESPN, which had televised the tournament in the U.S. since 1994. Setanta will show 94 live and delayed matches and holds the live broadband streaming rights to the contests.
The deal, terms of which were not disclosed, also represented a blow to ESPN Deportes and broadband service ESPN 360, which also aired matches from the prestigious club event.
David Sternberg, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Sports International, believes the deal will yield a trio of benefits.
"We think this acquisition helps Fox Soccer Channel compete at a new level and will lead to more conversations with affiliates and more distribution," he said. "The Champions League should also help us drive ratings and bring in incremental sponsorship revenue."
As the primary carrier, Fox Soccer Channel will broadcast 31 live -- kickoff will be at 2:45 p.m. (ET) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays -- and 79 delayed matches, including primetime encores of the 16 live FSN games on Tuesdays and the 31 debuting on Fox Sports en Espanol. The Spanish-language service, which counts some 14 million subscribers, including 5.3 million Hispanic households, will also air 63 encores. The tournament will expand with an added round, starting next August.
FSC will also present live pre- and post-game shows from its Los Angeles studios, and plans to air a 30-minute highlight show at the conclusion of each match day.
Sternberg believes the breadth of its coverage plans, not to mention the economic considerations, gave Fox the win.
"UEFA is very concerned with the proper presentation of its marquee, crown jewel event. We plan to give it as much attention and exposure as possible," he said.
In recent years, ESPN, whose three-year contract expires in May, has largely aired the matches in two windows --one live on ESPN2 and another in a delayed window on ESPN Classic.
The acquisition should also serve to "accelerate" Fox's HD plans, according to Sternberg. All 16 FSN Champions League matches will be in the enhanced format, as will the finale on FX. Sternberg said FSC plans to begin offering HD by the end of 2009. "If not, we'll certainly be there by the knockout stage of the tournament next year," he said, noting that there will be other HD exposures -- Italy's Serie A (four matches weekly) and England's Barclays Premier League (two) -- from its current holdings.
Sternberg expects FSC's coverage of clubs in those circuits will generate greater interest in the Champions League, which he believes will produce ratings in line with the EPL, its top Nielsen draw.
Speaking of the EPL, Sternberg said a time frame for bidding for Stateside rights has not been established yet. "I'm not sure exactly when that property will go to market, but it's our intention to retain the rights Fox has held over the past 11 years," he said.
Coupled with ESPN2 taking Major League Soccer out of its primetime fixture position on Thursday nights in favor of a rotating schedule, some are wondering if the total sports network is lessening its commitment to building its soccer presence in the U.S. Still, the worldwide leader in sports does hold the rights to FIFA's World Cup quadrennial competitions in 2010 and 2014 and the women's tournament in 2011. It recently fell short in its bid for EPL rights in the U.K.
ESPN officials, dismissing the notion of any diminished commitment to futbol, indicated they have interest in EPL rights in the U.S.