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Opinion: Analyzing the Bundesliga-ESPN Deal

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What we thought was just a rumor is now true.

NFL: SEP 16 Browns at Jets Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we reported this morning, the Bundesliga and ESPN agreed to a multi-year deal that will see the German top flight broadcast on the Worldwide Leader in Sports for the next six years, primarily delivering games on ESPN+, their online streaming service.


Thoughts and Analysis

You may recall that we initially reported on this deal earlier this summer (and that I wrote a piece analyzing the deal), so a lot of this will be my thoughts and my reactions. It should also be noted the deal was broken by Andrew Marchand of the New York Post this July.

We decided to run the story then for two major reasons: 1) it was massive news that helped some of our readers prepare their wallets 2) the New York Post is owned by News Corp, a sister company who share resources and a building with the Fox Corporation, so the authenticity could be trusted.

(It should be noted for integrity and disclosure’s sake that I formerly was an intern at Fox Corp, but I did not work for the sports department.)

First, let’s talk about Fox and their coverage of the league over the past few years before moving on to what we can look forward to with ESPN.


From the perspective of someone who works in (and hopes to break into) this industry, I can understand the hard work that Fox puts into their broadcasts. In addition to the rights, it cost Fox a lot of time and resources to cast talent, educate the audience, and put their product on the air. There are some great talents there, especially Kate Abdo and Derek Rae to name a few, who really know what they’re talking about and have passion for covering this league.

I sympathize with Fox’s efforts to get the U.S. to care about this league by expanding their coverage from just Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 to “big Fox” and their streaming service, Fox Sports GO. It’s hard for people in America to care about soccer outside of a World Cup, and I applaud their effort.

But, from the viewers’ perspective, I can say that, sometimes, watching Fox felt like a wasted opportunity. There were times that the production seemed to have been cobbled together at the last minute, and the hosts of their pregame show did not always seem to genuinely enjoy the league (Alexi Lalas in particular). It felt that the Bundesliga was on the back burner, even though the Bundesliga routinely helped Fox Sports fill programming slots every Saturday morning.

Again, these are just thoughts I’ve had. Everyone at Fox has worked hard to put their best foot forward and really make an effort in this coverage. I especially echo Derek Rae’s sentiment that this must be hard for the team at Fox Soccer:

But, at the end of the day, I imagine others will share the view that something may have been lacking. There wasn’t much promotion leading up to the weekend’s slate of games, and it was often felt there was a lack of informing the audience and planning the games.


Now, on to ESPN.

I know a lot of people will be mad that this means ESPN+ will be taking more money out of their wallet. But to this I say, there is more to this deal than meets the eye.

For one, I often felt was that Fox almost guaranteed that Bundesliga fans would be dissatisfied with their coverage unless they were fans of Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich. Even if there was a major matchup on the weekend (e.g. FC Köln-Borussia Mönchengladbach), there was a good chance that a game like Dortmund-Freiburg or Bayern-Augsburg would be broadcast on the air.

If you were a fan of any other team, the only way to guarantee you could watch your club was to pay $20/month for Fox Soccer Match Pass. Compared to that rate, $4.99/month for ESPN+ is major savings. Not only that, but EVERY BuLi game will be on ESPN+, not just the major ones.

Then, there’s the Disney Streaming Package.

For those unaware, The Walt Disney Company (parent of ESPN and many others), is about to release a major online streaming deal this November with a lot of original content. They will launch Disney+, with a lot of exclusive family-friendly content. They are a 23 owner of the popular streaming service Hulu as well.

This November, viewers have the option of purchasing Hulu Plus, Disney+, and ESPN+ for $13.99/month, which is still less than FSMP, which had a lot less programming.

However, there should be some concern in the minds of Bundesliga fans who don’t purchase any such packages. Bundesliga’s Americas VP Arne Rees sounded very optimistic in speaking to Forbes about the deal:

First of all, I want to say there is no ESPN+. Most of the games will be on ESPN+, but it is a partnership with ESPN, an organization that has about 90 million people that use the digital format. That number goes to about 200 million if you add all the TV and radio users to that.

To which I would respond: “There is no Fox Soccer Match Pass, it’s a partnership with Fox.” I don’t know how ESPN will be any different from Fox in terms of how they decided to distribute the games.

Also, if Rees thinks the deal isn’t with ESPN+, he should tell the Worldwide Leader, whose Press Room’s article about the deal says, “ESPN+ To Be The U.S. Home For Bundesliga, Beginning August 2020.”

The other thing of note is that ESPN+ has Serie A rights. They got the top-flight Italian league and began broadcasting in Cristiano Ronaldo’s first season at Juventus and did next to nothing to promote it. There were very few Serie A games broadcast on ESPN, or any of their other networks (ESPN 2, ESPN News, etc.). When was the last time you can remember them promoting the Milan derby or Juve-Inter?

This may be very damaging to the Bundesliga. When Fox picked up the rights, no one was watching the league outside longtime supporters because it was on GolTV in the US. That was an absolute nightmare, but the growth of the league in the states coincided with three things:

  1. The 2018 World Cup, after Germany won in 2014.
  2. Greater soccer fandom in the United States thanks to the success of the national teams.
  3. The rise of Christian Pulisic becoming one of the greatest Yanks abroad ever with Borussia Dortmund.

None of those things are the case anymore after Die Mannschaft crashed out of Russia, the USMNT lost in Trinidad, and Pulisic left for Chelsea.

There are many great American talents in the Bundesliga like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Josh Sergeant, but in order for their stardom (and the league) to grow, I would argue they need to be on linear TV (as opposed to streaming services). That may change in a few years’ time, but when we are currently in this middle ground in which cable and streaming are equally important, I’d go with the more established source in cable.


So, who wins in the end of all this? Well, it may be a case that we all win and lose.

Bundesliga

They win by moving to a more recognized and established network, who can dedicate more resources to broadcasting soccer than Fox could.

They lose by going to a network who will largely relegate them to their streaming service, where they have to compete with Serie A. Also, they definitely won’t have more than 10 games on normal TV in a season, because Americans love their college football (the other football).

Fox Sports

They win because Fox has made it clear they want to be the voice of American soccer, and this move aligns with that. They now only have these rights:

Jake Fenner

They lose by making that their modus operandi. The MLS is not ready to become the be-all, end-all league in the United States, as more Americans tune in to NBC Sports for the Premier League. It should be borne in mind that, in addition to the Bundesliga, Fox has also lost rights to the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. It will be interesting to see in ten years’ time whether this was the right move for Fox.

ESPN

They win because they’ve now made ESPN+ the official place to be if you’re a soccer fan. Adding the BuLi, ESPN has streaming rights for these soccer properties:

To quote Phil Swift from Flex Seal, “Now THAT’S A LOTTA DAMAGE.” Having this many leagues should be criminal, but for a burgeoning soccer market like the U.S. this service may be the one-stop-shop for fans that everyone needs.

They lose if they stop here. I know it depends on what ESPN does from here, but in my mind, they need to make a channel on linear TV that is dedicated strictly to soccer. The population of the United States is big enough that you should be able to put soccer on TV for everyone to enjoy. You’d have more than enough programming with all the above properties, and you wouldn’t infringe on the college sports to which ESPN also has the broadcasting rights. Also, La Liga’s deal with BeIn runs out after this season, and the Champions League and Europa League rights expire next year. Expect ESPN to make a run at those.

The Fans

We win by having one place to go for all things soccer. For all the leagues above, $4.99 is a steal when you just buy ESPN+. It’s a great service, and it will help grow a love for soccer for everyone who can afford it.

Which is where we all lose. Fox may have done some things wrong, but there’s one major thing they did right: they put German soccer on mainstream television. If you had a cable package with a lot of sports channels, you could be able to see all of the German games you wanted every Saturday. Part of that is because Fox Sports has little rights to college football and basketball (really just BIG East basketball with Big 10 and Pac-12 football & basketball included as well) and needed the programming. With ESPN, they don’t have that problem, and therefore, they have no real need to broadcast games other than Der Klassiker or the Revierderby.

Sure, ESPN has a bunch of affiliate networks, but around the fall, they’re all dedicated to the NCAA, and in the winter, college basketball will fill in those spots. There’s almost no space for soccer with them other than the streaming service.

For those who can afford it, buying ESPN+ makes sense. But for the rest of us, we have to make the decision to cough up even more money for the league we love.

A lot sooner than we may have hoped.