Fox Tackles Champions League Soccer From ESPN


Fox Cable Networks has wrested U.S. TV rights for the prestigious UEFA Champions League soccer tournament from ESPN.

Sources familiar with the negotiations said Fox Soccer and FSN outbid ESPN to televise the annual event, which features the top European soccer clubs like England's Manchester United, Spain's FC Barcelona, Italy's InterMilan and Germany's Bayern Munich.

The deal, which could see the final air on FX, is expected to be officially announced later this week. Fox's current plans, according to sources, call for one match to air on Fox Soccer Channel and a different contest to be televised simultaneously on FSN. Fox Soccer would also air matches in delayed windows. Fox Sports En Espanol will also be in the mix on the Spanish side.

Fox Soccer Channel officials declined to comment.

However, ESPN acknowledged that it was outgunned for the property, which airs in bursts, largely on weekday afternoons here in the States. ESPN, whose three-year expires with the 2009 tourney's conclusion this spring, had televised the competition since 1994.

"We have been informed by UEFA that they are moving ahead with a new partner in the United States," ESPN said in a statement. "We made a strong bid that we believe would have helped continue the year-to-year growth of the UEFA Champions League in the United States."

Fox Soccer Channel, which also carries top international leagues like England's Barclays Premiere League and Italy's Serie A, as well as the domestic circuit Major League Soccer, is currently in 34 million homes. Network brass hope the acquisition not only helps improve distribution, but drives ratings and ad dollars.

Although the mid-week, daytime schedule is challenging from a ratings perspective, the Champions League matches also held value for ESPN Deportes and its broadband service ESPN 360.

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 recently fell short in its bid for BPL rights in the U.K

It will be interesting to see how spirited the bidding for U.S. BPL rights, as well as those for Euro 2012 -- ESPN televised Euro 2008 -- are in the months ahead.