The Television Broadcast Future for U.S. Gooners?

By Brett Stein (@JerZGooner)

At the ripe-old age of 36 there are a few things that make me regularly nervous.  My wife and I recently had a son who is now 6-months old and I am constantly worried about his well-being.  So far this makes me a decent dad, but in 16 years if my panic doesn’t subside he may want a restraining order.  Last month I fretted about whether or not my beloved Philadelphia Phillies will ever put together a run like 2007-2011 again.  The last few weeks I have been keeping an eye on the return of Jack Wilshere, please pray to the god of your choice that he exits every pitch healthy from now until 2040 (that ridiculously sized package of bubble wrap is from me, Jack!  Wrap yourself in it every day!).  But most recently I have been nervous about what network/partnership will win the United States broadcasting rights for the English Premier League.

For those who haven’t noticed or are unaware, the current deal that is in place with FOX/ESPN expires at the end of this 12/13 campaign.  There are quite a few media outlets interested in acquiring the rights for 13/16: a joint bid from FOX/ESPN, and single offers from  beIN Sport, NBC, IMG,  and Discovery Networks (owner of BBC America).  Every player in the bidding process has different motivations.  NBC has a new sports network and has become the new masthead for the MLS, they likely want to expand their soccer brand.  The industry chatter from multiple online stories has IMG looking to sublicense the rights, similar to what FOX does for ESPN presently.  Discovery is likely out of their depth, I’m not sure what hot chick they are trying to impress.  As we approach the finish line for bidding, the main two horses in this race we need to pay attention to are FOX/ESPN and beIN Sport.

The FOX/ESPN product we are familiar with.  The studio shows have taken some knocks over the years but they have shown a desire to improve the product by axing and adding talent.  Most importantly both networks have increased their number of live broadcasts.  On a given weekend (Monday included) we can see seven or eight matches live on TV (not including the web-based platforms).  The national exposure of soccer in our country has been additionally heightened with live and tape-delay matches being shown on NFL Sundays.  FOX also recently won the rights to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I imagine they do not want to go dark on quality soccer until that kicks off.

beIn Sport (bIS) is the new kid on the block.  They are owned by Al Jazeera, the state owned Qatari multi-national media conglomerate.   That last sentence alone gets some American viewers tearing at their kits like Hulk Hogan in a rage, but most do not realize that Al Jazeera is recognized internationally as one of the most respected and unbiased media brands.  bIS currently operates three channels in France and recently debuted two channels (English & Spanish) here in the U.S.  They have purchased the rights to La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, and English Championship matches among other tournaments like the Copa del Rey and South American World Cup qualifiers.  Their “make it rain” style of spending has all but relegated the GolTV channel (former holders of most those leagues) into non-existence.  beIN Sport has money, lots of oil money, and they like to spend it.  They only thing holding up their omnipresence in the U.S. is lack of carriers, as it is only available on DirecTV, Dish Network and Comcast.  Providing them with a scant 13 million households reached out of a total of 54 million available.

All of the media rights bids were due to the EPL from interested participants this past Thursday, October 18th.  Bids were submitted of course, but the very next day it was leaked that the bidding window would be extended another week to the 25th.  There is nothing but speculation as to why this happened.  Perhaps a cash grab by the EPL to ratchet up the bids?  Maybe they didn’t like the broadcast formats?  Or perhaps they weren’t crazy about the high bidder?  We may never know.

So as dyed in the wool, red & white Gooners who should we back in this bidding war?  When the dust settles I believe it does not matter as long as we get to see our club live from the U.K every weekend and occasional weekday.  FOX/ESPN has proven that they can deliver the product to as many people as possible and they may even be willing to expand that more.  They are known commodities and a safe choice.  On the flip side, beIN Sport has one channel right now and they have three major soccer leagues, the math for live broadcasts isn’t too tough to pencil.  Remember when our match last month with Sunderland wasn’t shown on live TV?  That was awesome (heavy sarcasm there, new readers).  United, City and Chelsea rarely seem to get skunked like that, no we’ll throw Barcelona and Real Madrid into the mix for live airtime?!  Unless beIn Sport adds more channels to their offering I do not see how they can handle all of that top-notch live programming.   Should they win the bid we can only hope it is an effort to leverage their stable of sports products against the cable companies.  They can then get air time and add another channel or two (or five).  That sounds like a lot to hope for but the Qataris do have the money to make that happen and probably pretty quickly.  The very thought of seeing the number of live Arsenal broadcasts take a step backward makes me nervous though.  Money is always the ultimate wildcard, no matter the circumstance or venue.  One can only hope that all of the parties involved with the bidding, negotiations and broadcast planning keep the viewer Gooner in mind.