Yesterday, the NBA announced a new nine-year contract with ESPN and Turner worth $2.66 billion per year, a massive increase over the current deal. That’s a lot of money, and surely inflated by the fact that sports programming will be scarce over the next few years. The NFL, that juggernaut of juggernauts, is under contract through 2022. The NHL has a contract with NBC for $200 million a year (a figure that now looks paltry) through the 2021-22 season. Even MLS went long, and won’t be done with the ESPN and Fox contract until 2021. Add those to baseball, NASCAR, the college football playoff, and March Madness, and you realize that the major American sports competitions are all locked down into the next decade.
But cable sports networks can’t just sit still from now until 2021. Both NBC and Fox have created alternatives (if not yet competitors) to ESPN. Live sports have resisted the erosion of viewership that seemingly all other television has suffered in recent years, and so they’ve become very valuable with the new cable competition. Fox in particular wanted a piece of the NBA pie, while NBCSN still often appears bare in the summer months. In a world where sports are increasingly valuable for television networks, and in a country where soccer is increasingly popular, we have a market where the largest available properties are soccer competitions.
NBC’s handling of the Premier League has quickly become something of a gold standard for soccer coverage, matched only in quality by ESPN’s World Cup production. Their $250 million investment has more than paid off with ratings that are better than hockey’s regular season. The Premier League is a big fish in NBCSN’s fairly small pond, nicely complimenting the NHL, Tour De France, and occasional Olympic festivities. Moreover, it provides bulk, nearly 300 hours a season, time that would otherwise be filled by remnants of the Outdoor Life Network.
Unfortunately, the Premier League refuses to do business for more than three years at a time, and NBC’s current contract will be up after the 2015-16 season. The work NBC has done in promoting the Premier League will if nothing else increase the price of the next contract. Both ESPN and Fox have talked about wanting the Premier League back, but their obligations to college football and basketball might work in NBC’s favor. The Peacock cannot afford to let some of its flagship sports programming go.
Beyond England, Spain has the most lucrative domestic league. But as I’ve noted before, La Liga buried on BeIn Sport, the Al Jazeera-owned channel most don’t have. I couldn’t find when the contract ends, but it began before the 2012-13 season, so I assume La Liga will be up for grabs again within the next couple years. The Qataris have deep pockets and would probably overspend to keep the biggest reason why people watch BeIn Sport. But if the powers that be in Spain were to grow envious of the Premier League’s exposure, ESPN and Fox might have room for some Sunday football counter-programming. So, mind you, might NBCSN; there’s less overlap between Premier League and La Liga’s TV schedules than one might expect, and NBCSN already has convenient overflow and streaming option.
Copa America will be held in the U.S. in 2016, the largest soccer tournament this country has hosted since the World Cup. BeIn holds the rights to this tournament’s South American incarnation, but CONCACAF and Traffic hold the rights to the 2016 event. That would seem to give Fox an upperhand in negotiations, and they seem intent on having as much soccer as possible between now and their World Cups. Fox’s CONCACAF deal is up for grabs after 2016, for those interested in the Gold Cup and CCL. ESPN has the rights to that summer’s European Championship (also up after 2016); I think it’s unlikely that they’d flood their airwaves with soccer by adding Copa America to that mix. NBC remains a possibility should the rights fall through Fox’s hands.
In 2018, after all those matters are dealt with, Fox’s current deal for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League comes to an end. It’s unclear what Fox is currently paying for those rights, but given the smaller viewership and scarcer matches, one would imagine that the Champions League is significantly less lucrative than the Premier League. Still, it’s no small prize, and provides a pleasant weekday-afternoon alternative to the usual allotment of panel shows. Currently, Fox licenses some games out to ESPN, and I imagine both are rather happy with that set-up. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues past the current deal.
At a time when everything else is tied down, multiple soccer entities might benefit from being available on a seller’s market for sports programming. The already burgeoning amount of soccer coverage seems poised to grow only larger over the next half-decade. I’ve only barely touched on the expiring deals for the European championship and CONCACAF competitions, and ignored Fox’s claim of the Bundesliga, which begins next fall. There has never been a better time to be a soccer fan in the United States.