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EPL U.S. TV rights leaving Fox/ESPN; NBC next?

The world's most popular soccer league will be getting a new home in the United States.

The Sports Business Daily reported on Friday that NBC Universal has emerged as the front-runner to pick up the U.S. rights to the English Premier League after a joint Fox-ESPN bid was rejected. The new rights deal would begin next season and is expected to be a three-year term.

Home to famed sports franchises such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, the EPL has been the jewel in Fox Soccer Channel's programming, and much of the network's programming centers around commentary and news of the league. The loss would be significant for Fox, even though it owns the World Cup for rights beginning with the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.

Clearly, NBC seems opportunity in international soccer, which has been trending upward as a television property. Last May, as part of a 'Survival Sunday' promotion on the final day of the EPL season, Fox simultaneously aired nine EPL matches, including seven on cable channels and two online. The programming drew 1.35 million viewers, up 72 percent from the previous year. (Fox's EPL broadcasts are down this year about 20 percent off its 2009-10 high).

"We were disappointed to learn today that English Premier League has elected to move forward with a different media partner despite FOX Sports Media Group's aggressive bid," Fox Sports said in a statement. "FOX Soccer has been the primary US voice of EPL for almost two decades, and has done much over the years to increase its popularity, value and availability. We wish them well. FOX Soccer continues to serve as the primary television and digital destination in the US for elite competitions including UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, FA Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, CONCACAF Gold Cup, and is the future home of FIFA World Cup and FIFA Women's World Cup beginning in 2015."

Said ESPN in a statement: "We are disappointed that our joint bid with FOX did not retain the English Premier League rights in the United States for the next three seasons. We thank the League, which has been a great business partner, and we wish them well. "We're proud of our role in growing the sport in this country and remain committed to soccer and to its fans. We will continue to work with our colleagues at FOX to provide unrivaled coverage of the Premier League for the remainder of this season."

NBC did not immediately return emails for comment. The network signed athree-year deal with MLS last year to nationally televise 40 matches per year.

The Sports Business Daily reported that NBC would pay the EPL around $83 million per year, an amount that's more than triple the $23 million per year that Fox currently pays for its deal. (As part of the current deal, Fox had sublicensed about 80 games per season to ESPN.) The NBC Sports Network is in the market for live sports programming, and the EPL would provide a high-profile property alongside the NHL should it ever return to the ice.

Miami-based beIN Sport, which debuted in early August, remains an outside contender for the EPL U.S. rights. beIN Sport already procured U.S. rights to La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 (the top French League), as well as all South American World Cup qualifiers and the some United States national team away qualifiers (except at Mexico). Speaking recently with SI.com's Grant Wahl, BeIN Sport managing director Yousef Al Obaidly was coy about how aggressive the network would bid for EPL rights.

"We received an invitation [to bid]," Al Obaidly said. "If it makes sense for us to go to the Premier League. We might. [But] we might not. We're very focused on the leagues that we have today, and we want to make a good product and show our viewers the best content with the best production."

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