[MY VIEW] Fox made a preemptive strike to garner the English-language World Cup rights from FIFA away from ESPN in a deal more than four times greater than ESPN's current deal with FIFA and more than 10 times the deal SUM, MLS's marketing arm, struck to ensure that the English-language rights went to ESPN in 2002 and 2006. Fox's move drew immediate consternation from many fans concerned about what it would mean to MLS and how soccer will generally be treated on American television.
Our response: Welcome to the big time.
To say the least, U.S. English-language World Cup rights have skyrocketed from $11 million in 1994 to $22 million in 1998, SUM's $40 million time-buy in 2002 and 2006, $100 million in 2010 and 2014 and ... $450 million to $500 million for 2018 and 2022.
What will happen to MLS's TV deals? Yes, the Fox deal complicates matters for MLS, but the league will be in its 20th year when its own new television deal begins in 2015. If it isn't able to negotiate between now and then a strong deal on its own -- without the help it got when the 2002-06 and 2010-14 World Cup deals were struck -- it may never be able to cut a strong TV deal. It was always going to be the case that one of the three bidders was going to have secured the 2018-22 World Cup rights. It just so happens that the two losers are the two networks -- ESPN and NBC -- that have will be covering MLS over the next three years. Any blow that ESPN's defeat is to MLS is softened by NBC's move into soccer with its coverage of MLS in 2012-14. At least, two networks will be bidding for the post-2014 MLS rights.
How will Fox present the World Cup? This is probably the big question mark. Fox was panned for its coverage of the 2011 UEFA Champions League. Former NFL star and current Fox NFL analyst Michael Strahan's segment before the Wembley final ranks among the dumbest soccer segments on network television in a generation. Fox Soccer's poor game coverage of MLS has always been a bone of contention with the league. Fox will have a lot of work to match ESPN for its pre-game, halftime and post-game coverage. As for the in-game coverage, Fox will get the same international feed ESPN got. The big question will be, what announcers will Fox use? Will it capture British TV rights and use its British announcers on its U.S. broadcasts like it does for the Champions League?
How will Fox promote the World Cup? ESPN aggressively promoted the World Cup -- and all things soccer -- and had the advantage of having many platforms on which to promote the event. It also had a whole stable of creative geniuses cooking up soccer ideas. Think of all the soccer vignettes it showed. Documentaries like "The Two Escobars." Soccer coverage in ESPN The Magazine. ESPN treated soccer as a first-class sport. Fox also has many platforms, but it isn't set up the same. It has no sports news institution like ESPN's SportsCenter. Much of its television operation is non-sports with networks like FX, Fox News Network and Fox Business Network. It will be in Fox's interest, though, to promote the heck out of the 2018 World Cup to set the ratings bar for advertisers to the 2022 World Cup. Fox might not promote the World Cup like ESPN has done, but it hasn't hurt it when it comes to airing events like the Super Bowl and World Series. And there's no reason to believe ESPN will ignore the World Cup simple because its a non-rights holder. After all, it doesn't own the rights to the Super Bowl, World Series or Final Four, but it still has a major presence at these events.
How will Fox treat other FIFA events? With the rights to the World Cup come rights to all other FIFA competitions over eight years (2015-22). Right away, we will see how Fox treats its investment. The 2015 Women's World Cup will be in Canada. Frankly, Fox will be hard pressed to match ESPN's commitment to the women's championship. The USA's run in Germany this summer created a ratings coup for ESPN, which was justly rewarded for its exceptional coverage of the tournament with studio shows from Germany each day and live coverage on ESPN and ESPN2. As for other FIFA events like the Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups (men and women), Fox will be able to use these events to fill the dead summer months between European league seasons when Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus show reruns of games from year's past. And it gains plenty of programming to air on foxsoccer.tv like ESPN did with ESPN3.com.