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FIFA Deals Blow to TV Sports Powers

Fox Sports, Telemundo come out victorious in soccer sweepstakes

Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN via Getty Images

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In a shake-up that will have repercussions throughout the sports universe, the two longtime broadcasters of the FIFA World Cup were deposed by a pair of upstarts.

Fox Sports on Friday outbid incumbent ESPN/ABC Sports for the English-language rights to the four World Cup tournaments scheduled from 2015 to 2022, plunking down an estimated $475 million for the package. Outflanking the dominant Univision for the Spanish-language rights, NBCUniversal’s Telemundo forked over some $625 million.

The reversal shocked ESPN, which had helped raise soccer’s profile through its extensive World Cup coverage. While the Disney network declined to put a dollar value on its doomed offer, a spokesperson characterized it as “a disciplined bid that would have been both valuable to FIFA and profitable for our company.” Insiders say that ESPN’s bid was nearly $100 million shy of Fox’s.

ESPN in 2005 paid $100 million for an English-language package that included the rights to the 2010 and 2014 Men’s World Cups.

Fox’s success with its Sunday English Premier League matches set the stage for its successful bid. ESPN, meanwhile, has been left with a major programming hole after devoting years to building an even bigger franchise in the sport.

“More than anything, ESPN is responsible for soccer’s meteoric growth in the U.S.,” said one New York-based media planner. “The biggest moments—from Brandi Chastain’s [penalty kick] in ‘99 to Landon Donovan’s unbelievable run in last year’s World Cup—were brought to you by ESPN. They’re synonymous with big-time soccer.”

Fox’s win gives the broadcaster the rights to air the Men’s World Cup in 2018 and 2020, as well as the corresponding Women’s events in 2015 and 2019. Also in the mix are the under-20 and under-17 national team competitions.

If the Fox win was startling, Telemundo’s cutthroat bid was nothing short of devastating to Univision. No longer willing to play second banana, the NBCU unit’s Zurich delegation saw so much potential in the World Cup that it effectively doubled FIFA’s current $325 million Spanish-language rights fee.

Even with the record tally, the size of the bids may have come in below what they could have been due to time zone concerns. The 2018 World Cup will be staged in Western Russia (host cities include Moscow and St. Petersburg), eight hours ahead of New York and 11 ahead of Los Angeles, which translates to odd viewing windows here in the U.S. Qatar in 2022 will be seven and 10 hours ahead of those cities, respectively.

Because there are no commercial breaks, soccer is the least advertiser-friendly sport on the tube. Along with ramping up their respective production teams for 2015, Fox and Telemundo will need to cut cross-platform deals to make the most of their respective investments. “ESPN has three networks, a magazine, a bunch of digital, and radio to sell,” said one sports buyer. “They have an infrastructure that lets them defray the lack of inventory in World Cup games. The new guys are going to have to step that part of their game up.”