A year after buying the rights to Italy’s Serie A soccer league and England’s FA Cup competition, ESPN is reportedly primed to add more European soccer to ESPN+. According to The New York Post, Germany’s Bundesliga will move to the $5/month service starting in 2020.
That would mean one more year on FOX Sports, the league’s U.S. home since 2015. Losing the coverage after previously surrendering FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League action would still leave FOX with World Cup and MLS deals, but no strictly European content. The company remains interested in international soccer coverage but was once again outbid by a competitor looking to bolster new streaming products. FOX has a $140/year Soccer Match Pass offering, though the loss of Bundesliga content now throws its future into question.
Few fans would complain about having to seek out one fewer over-the-top subscription as matches would still be split among NBC Sports, B/R Live, TNT, ESPN, ESPN+ and BeIN Sports, among others. But the bigger significance of the latest digital rights battle is what it says about the larger war.
This May, ESPN programming boss Burke Magnus said the company was “stacking up global soccer as much we can” in the hopes that a “buffet of great leagues and tournaments around the world” would make ESPN+ indispensable. The Worldwide Leader has added much more than soccer to its premium service over the last 12 months, too, willing to spend for competitions as diverse as PGA Championship golf, UFC pay-per-views, and Big 12 basketball. It’s also grown its scripted programming, including, I’m told, getting another season of Detail with Peyton Manning.
Both ESPN and FOX declined to comment on the Bundesliga negotiations. A league spokesman, meanwhile, said, “We are currently in the market and are having discussions with interested parties.”
Back in the entertainment stone ages of 2013, when Netflix was hoping to put out five original shows per year, its chief content officer Ted Sarandos said, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us." Six years later, the digital disruptor appears well on its way. In the sports space on the other hand, it increasingly feels like the Worldwide Leader is beating its upstart competitors to the punch.
Once the Bundesliga sweepstakes wrap up, two of the next looming prizes are the rights to La Liga (BeIN’s until 2020) and the PGA Tour (CBS/NBC/Golf Channel’s until 2021). If the properties were to change hands, and that’s a big if, ESPN feels like a more likely destination than just about any tech-based alternative.
To owners and commissioners, ESPN offers a best-of-both-worlds comfort amid media uncertainty: the reliable relevance of its TV and digital audience along with the increased rights fees that come with moving behind a paywall. For mid-tier leagues fighting to keep up with the competition, those extra dollars can make all the difference, even if there’s a chance moving to ESPN+ hampers longterm growth by limiting mainstream exposure.
A deal with ESPN also provides the confidence that the Disney-owned behemoth will survive into whatever the future of sports broadcasting looks like, and unlike with the tech giants, there’s no concern about a pivot. For fans, the $5/month add-on remains among the most tolerable, with underlying technology that stands among the most reliable.
Before I go further, three disclaimers...
1. It’s still early in this competition. Amazon has yet to fully make its mark. DAZN is still less than a year old in the U.S. YouTube remains largely in experimentation mode. Last week AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said his upcoming HBO Max service will also eventually compete in the live sports space.
2. Over-the-top remains a minuscule factor in overall sports viewership. With established networks showing marquee events like the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, and Olympics for the foreseeable feature, the choice between cable and every online add-on combined is a no-brainer for the average sports fan.
3. All of these new business models, ESPN+ included, remain unproven over the long run. And given each entrant’s unique strategy, multiple companies will end up being successful in complementary ways.
So, yes, it would be extremely premature to declare a streaming sports winner. But for the first time, it’s fair to pronounce a leader—a company whose online-only package currently stands above the rest because of the money they’ve been willing to spend and the properties they’ve been able to entice—and it’s the same network that’s been leading for a long time now.
Stephen Vs. The Game Concludes With Warriors Loss
Stephen Curry hears the noise. That was one of the biggest takeaways from the finale of his Facebook Watch documentary series, co-created by Gotham Chopra. At one point during the show, Curry has highlights on in his hotel room Toronto. He also listens to The Bill Simmons Podcast, Chopra said.
“When you’ve been that successful for so long, athletes...are always looking for an edge, looking for that psychological and mental thing, that sense of doubt sometimes,” Chopra said.
Working with Curry for over a year on the eight-part project, Chopra saw a superstar who was hypercompetitive on the court but also “really good at letting go of things when he gets home.” So even after injuries ended the Warriors dynasty in the NBA Finals—even after Curry himself missed a three-pointer that would have extended the series—he is OK. “It’s really easy for me to be at peace with how it ends up,” he says in the show. He also relishes what’s to come, saying, “We were the hunted. Now we get to go back to hunting.”
Chopra’s previous Facebook series followed Tom Brady through the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. As a result, the Versus show has now offered a dual look at how legends handle loss, in addition to the wider themes tackled.
As for what’s next, Chopra said he and his team are working to identify and convince the next subject, with as few as 10 American athletes currently fitting the necessary levels of both popularity and introspectiveness. Previous reports indicated that Cristiano Ronaldo could be in line for a Facebook show, but Chopra said he has not been in serious dialogue with the soccer star at this point.
• DAZN shared a free night of its MLB ChangeUp show on Twitter Tuesday, and drew over four million unique viewers. Next, the streamer will debut a nine-part original soccer series beginning next week (featuring the aforementioned Ronaldo).
• It’s never too early to start talking about the Olympics. But will the Olympics be too early?
• The Athletic has hit 500,000 subscribers.
• The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss took ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro to a Yankees game to ask him how strictly he’ll stick to sports.
• In a quiet sports stretch, at least there’s Fortnite…
• ...and politics.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...for the best bad tweet I’ve seen in 154 days, or is it 19, or 11? Or wait, maybe 60?