Next Wednesday is one of the most important days of the next decade for soccer in the United States. That's when bids are due in Zürich, Switzerland, for the U.S. broadcast rights for World Cups '18 and '22. ESPN, NBC and Fox are expected to bid for the English-language rights, while Univisión and NBC-owned Telemundo are expected to be in competition for the Spanish-language rights. After the bids are submitted on Wednesday -- there will be no formal presentations, as there were for the Olympic rights bids earlier this year -- the FIFA executive committee will meet on Thursday and could reach a decision on the winners as soon as that day.
Why do the World Cup rights bids matter so much for soccer here? The winners will be committed to helping build the audience for the sport through 2022, which is no small thing. ESPN, which paid $100 million for the English-language rights for World Cups '10 and '14, made the 2010 World Cup one of the company's top priorities last year. It promoted the event heavily, received positive reviews for its coverage and reaped the rewards: The U.S.-Ghana second round game, for example, drew a total U.S. audience of 19.4 million, more than all but two games of the '09 World Series and all but Game 7 of the '10 NBA Finals. Audiences should be even bigger for World Cup 2014 in Brazil, not least because many of the games will be taking place during prime time on U.S. television.
Who are the favorites to win next week? The incumbents, according to several insiders I spoke to. ESPN is bullish on soccer these days, in large part because decision-maker John Skipper (its executive vice president for content) is a soccer fan who's convinced there's money to be made in big-event
For a country that supposedly cares little about soccer, the U.S. now views the World Cup as a legitimate, big-time sporting event. The combined $425 million U.S. rights fee for World Cups '10 and '14 was the highest of any country in the world, and insiders expect a substantial increase next week for '18 and '22. (Given the value of the U.S. TV bid, you'd think the U.S. might carry more weight in FIFA than it does, but that's a topic for another column.) The Spanish-language rights fee may not increase much over $325 million, but the English-language fee will likely rise significantly and approach if not exceed the Spanish-language number. (For what it's worth, I'm told that if the U.S. had won the right to host World Cup '22 instead of Qatar, next week's U.S. rights fees would have been worth at least $100 million more.)
Of course, it's possible that there could be a surprise next week. One source told SI.com that Fox (which owns the only 24-7 soccer channel in America, Fox Soccer) is serious about trying to snatch the English-language rights from ESPN, just as it did with the UEFA Champions League rights two years ago. Fox has recently begun experimenting with showing select Premier League games on the main Fox network and has shown the last two Champions League finals live on its flagship channel.
The wild card in the bidding process is NBC, which is expected to submit the only combined English- and Spanish-language bid for NBC and subsidiary Telemundo. NBC Sports increased its stake in soccer in August by outbidding Fox Soccer to spend a reported $30 million on a second-tier package to broadcast 45 MLS games and four U.S. national team games a year through the end of 2014. (ESPN's eight-year, $64 million deal for MLS and U.S. games also continues through the end of '14.) Most of the NBC Sports games will be shown on Versus, which is being rebranded as the NBC Sports Channel in January.
One factor that could play a role in next week's bidding process is a broadcaster's interest to covering soccer on a regular basis in the United States; in other words, showing a commitment not just to the World Cup every four years but also to televising Major League Soccer and the U.S. national teams. In a now-famous story, NBC Sports honcho Dick Ebersol had a handshake deal with FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2005 for NBC and Telemundo to win the rights for '10 and '14 for $350 million. NBC had little interest at the time in broadcasting MLS and U.S. Soccer, however, and Chuck Blazer (the U.S. member on the FIFA ExCo) convinced FIFA to open up the bid process. ESPN and Univisión cooperated on a higher $425 million bid that included ESPN's promise to broadcast MLS and U.S. games as well. (Ebersol was said to be furious with FIFA for reneging on a deal; he's no longer in the same capacity with NBC and will not be in Zürich next week.)
Times have changed somewhat, however. NBC can now say that it's committed to MLS and U.S. games, at least through 2014, while Fox does not have any such deal for the next three years. And while ESPN's contract with MLS/U.S. Soccer also runs through 2014, I'm told that part of ESPN's bid to FIFA next week will include a stipulation that it will remain committed to MLS and U.S. games through 2022.
If you're someone who wants to see soccer grow in America on a regular basis, that commitment is a big deal indeed. While MLS is on more solid footing than it was 10 years ago and is here to stay, its TV ratings have hardly been blockbuster, and receiving benefits from its association with U.S. Soccer and the World Cup rights may well continue to be important. Several industry insiders I've spoken to wonder how much MLS would actually fetch in its TV rights deals if it had to go on its own and wasn't packaged with U.S. national team games, which draw more interest. In any case, with MLS and U.S. Soccer's TV deals now all expiring at the end of 2014, it will be interesting to see how much its next deals sell for -- and whether they will exceed the $10 million a year NBC is reportedly now paying.
In the end, of course, there's more interest from more broadcasters in soccer television here, and that's a good thing for the sport and for U.S. fans. It wasn't long ago that MLS owners (through Soccer United Marketing) were buying the English-language World Cup rights and renting time on ESPN. Those days are over, and soccer on the tube is on a distinctly upward trend.