The rebranding earlier this year of Versus as the NBC Sports Network, and the increasing speculation that Fox may convert one of their special interest networks (e.g. Fuel) into a general all-sports network, has suggested to many media observers that ESPN might finally be given a run for its money. And indeed, the Worldwide Leader is likely in for some stiff competition, but from a most unlikely source.
As reported by Awful Announcing last week (via EPL Talk), the Arab news network has major plans to move into the world of sports, with the start of its beIN sports network. And what better way to get a toehold into the world of sports broadcasting than thru the world’s most popular sport?
As AA points out, the next property in the network’s crosshairs is the English Premier League. EPL rights are up for bid this summer, and it may well be a three-way battle between ESPN, Fox and beIN to see who emerges with the prized American television rights. For Fox, victory would mean a consolidation of their soccer empire, which in 2018 will include the World Cup. For ESPN, a win gives them a leg up through 2014, their last (for now) World Cup.
Recently Al Jazeera has announced the launch of a beIn Sports network here in the U.S. and it's already begun obtaining rights to international soccer leagues. The Italian league (Serie A) and Ligue 1 [France] that used to find their home on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus will be on the new beIN Sports station starting this fall. Copa America and South American World Cup Qualifying will find their home there and beIn Sports has also won rights to La Liga in Spain, the home to teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona and stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The move from GolTV to beIn Sports cripples GolTV who previously made La Liga the centerpiece of their network's soccer coverage. In fact, the dominoes have already started falling as talented GolTV play-by-play man Phil Schoen has left GolTV for the new startup. One wonders if his partner Ray Hudson, one of AA's favorites, can't be far behind.
What if beIN emerges triumphant, however? It’s hard, as Ryan Yoder notes, to believe that Al Jazeera will allow themselves to be outbid if they really, really want the EPL. And in time, beIN might grow a large and loyal following in the U.S. But until then,
[T]here are just too many questions left unanswered. How quickly would the channel be available? What kind of distribution would it get? The NFL Network isn't even available yet on Time Warner Cable, and it's been in existence since 2003. At the moment, beIn Sports has hinted at "two major deals" for distribution, but details aren't yet available. Would beIn Sports be a premium network that required the extra fees of a "sports tier" from satellite and cable providers? What would the production quality be of a brand new network? How about the broadcast talent? What would happen to the visibility and accessibility of the Premier League in the states?
In short, a move of the EPL to a brand new network that few have access to would severely reverse much of the momentum that soccer in this country has been building since the 2010 World Cup
The thrilling conclusion to the Premier League season, along with Chelsea's exciting Champions League final, illustrate the growing audience in America for high-quality European soccer. (For those of you who notice, compare the number of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea shirts you see worn in the neighbourhood to, say, the Chicago Fire or LA Galaxy.) What happens to that momentum if the Premier League goes to a niche network seen in few American homes? From a television point of view, what happens to the outstanding announcing crew – Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and company – we’ve become accustomed to hearing?
There is, of course, a political/cultural element to this discussion as well. I hesitate to make this analogy, because it’s an inexact one, but it reminds me of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Washington Times by the Unification Church many years ago. DC was badly in need of a conservative alternative to the Washington Post (the city’s second newspaper, the Star, had folded the year before the Times was launched), and the paper has done some excellent reporting over the years. Still, despite a distinguished list of editors and writers, and and the Church’s initial insistence that it would exercise no editorial control over the newspaper, many people had – and continue to have - great qualms over supporting the paper.
I see something similar here, at least in the sense that we have a media conglomerate, with a definite global/political identification, becoming involved in an enterprise which they could probably claim has no ideological significance. We merely seek, they could plausibly say, to bring the best sports entertainment available to a worldwide audience. And this could be the case. But will there be that hesitation to become involved too closely with the network, either as a viewer or employee? Do announcers and technicians look beyond any apprehensions they might have and follow the league they love? Do dedicated fans bite the bullet and subscribe to a premium channel, even though they may be concerned about where those subscription fees go, simply to enjoy their favorite sport?
This is not an easy question. My hope is that we won’t have to answer it, at least this time around. We should know the answers, at least in part, in a few weeks.