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UEFA Champions League: Fox Soccer's hot property
by Ridge Mahoney, September 25th, 2009 5:59PM
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TAGS:  soccer business, uefa champions league


He wasn't around for the startup of what would become the first English-language soccer channel in America, but David Sternberg remembers those modest beginnings clearly enough.

"It is gratifying to see the growth of Fox Soccer Channel," said Sternberg of what was Fox Sports World when it was launched in the fall of 1997. "When I started, the network was only four months old and we were in maybe 10 households, but we've had tremendous growth."

Sternberg is executive vice president and general manager of Fox Sports International, which in March acquired U.S. rights to the UEFA Champions League. For the next three years, it will control the most valuable soccer club competition in the world, one that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year for UEFA and the participating clubs.

"When you look at the players who are featured in the Champions League," says Sternberg, "you're talking about the greatest soccer players in the world, so I think you're talking about a much bigger potential draw than you'd ever have with a single-country league, even though, having said that, the English Premier League has been an anchor of our programming, and very popular."

Rather than use announcers calling games off a monitor, as was usually done when ESPN controlled the property, Fox is using the commentary feeds coming from the match venues and enhancing its coverage with studio segments featuring former English international Warren Barton, analyst Bobby McMahon and host Max Bretos.

Barton, who played in England for a half-dozen clubs, including Wimbledon, Derby County, Queen's Park Rangers and Newcastle, moved to Southern California a year ago after working for Sky Sports in the UK before and after his retirement as a player.

"You miss the atmosphere of the English Premier League and seeing colleagues and friends who you've worked with and people who are involved in the business," says Barton, who turned 40 earlier this year and briefly worked for the Galaxy as a youth team coach. "You meet a lot of good people.

"That is something I miss, but working for Fox, there's never a dull moment. That was one of things we said, it's that it's better to be there. When you're sitting in the stadium, you can see an incident that's gone off the ball, or a substitution that's coming, an argument with the fourth official, a disagreement between players.

"If you're there and something happens, you can find out right away what's going on, rather than having to wait 30 or 45 seconds to see it on the monitor or get the information. It's quite uncomfortable to get it off tube and not getting the feel of it."

On match days, FSC produces a live, half-hour pregame show prior to first telecast of the day at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) as well as halftime segments. Later in the day - the airtime varies as other programming changes - the network airs a half-hour highlights show voiced-over by Bretos.

The contract provides FSC rights to show 31 games live and 79 delayed each season. Fox Sports en Espanol will carry the same number of live games and 63 delayed.

Setanta also obtained U.S. rights to 94 games and receives the second pick, after Fox, of one live game each match day. It previously shared live rights with ESPN, and games would be shown live and on tape-delay on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and Setanta.

Fox is utilizing multiple platforms to spread its European Champions League programming. The Fox Sports Net regional affiliates are authorized to carry 16 live matches on Tuesdays. The final, scheduled for May 22 in Madrid, is set to air on yet another Fox cable channel, F/X, as well as FSC and FSE.

That reach, says Sternberg, played a crucial role in wresting away the rights from ESPN. Most of the Champions League coverage had aired on ESPN2, which reaches nearly 100 million U.S. households, but this time UEFA accepted Fox's bid instead.

(By law, ESPN has virtually no presence in Canada, which has three national sports networks of its own. One of them, Rogers Sportsnet, will share Canadian rights with Setanta to the Champions League via a separate deal.)

FSC is available in approximately 35 million households in the United States and the Caribbean. The 22 FSN regional affiliates, which include Comcast sports systems in several markets, reach approximately 115 million households. Sternberg says that for the playoffs and start of group play, 90 million FSN households had been cleared to air Tuesday matches.

"By working out a distribution arrangement with them," says Sternberg of the affiliates, "we were able to allay the concerns that UEFA had about potentially taking a step backwards in its distribution and exposure."

Viewers have complained that games aired on FSC are inferior to those of other sports programming. The Champions League matches produced for FSN will air in high-definition as a prelude to FSC and FSE in January going to full-time HD production.

"I think we're giving them a bigger platform than they've ever had in this country," says Sternberg. "We demonstrated what we could do for them in terms of aggregating an audience on the different platforms, be it FSN, Fox Soccer Channel, or Fox Sports en Espanol. We also were able to point to a dedicated a soccer platform, a 24/7 channel and an accompanying Web site, and a Spanish-language channel that is heavily into soccer. That was certainly the rationale that we presented, and it was persuasive."

Along with Sternberg, the driving force behind Fox's acquisition of the Champions' League is senior vice-president of programming and production Dermot McQuarrie.

Since the re-branding of Fox Sports World as Fox Soccer Channel in 2005, the only non-soccer programming - aside from infomercials - airing on FSC is Sky Sports News. McMahon, who appears twice a week on the "Fox Soccer Report" that is produced in Winnipeg, flies to Fox Sports International's offices in Los Angeles to work on the Champions League segments with Bretos and Barton.

"There was a lot more skepticism 10 years ago when I first got involved in this business than there is today," says Sternberg. "It's been a culmination of factors: the staying power MLS has had, the success of the USA men's and women's national teams, the tremendous popularity of the offseason tours by big European clubs, and the impact that we've had as a broadcaster.

"All those things have really lifted the profile and awareness of soccer as a spectator sport in America, and that's a great development as far as we're concerned. We're very bullish on its potential."

(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)


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