By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 19, 2020) US Soccer Players – The UEFA Champions League is the world’s biggest club competition. The tournament’s rebranding in 1992 brought with it more clubs from each country, a revamped format featuring more games and an injection of TV revenue. The planet’s best players want to take part in the Champions League, the de facto world championship for club soccer.
Over the years, the Champions League has become increasingly important on US television. The Champions League has turned into something that Americans can easily embrace. The best teams in Europe eventually playing off against each other. It wasn’t always this way in this country. The Champions League’s popularity and broader access to sports fans grew alongside the technology available to Americans over the past 30 years. Starting Tuesday, the Champions League returns on both television and streaming services.
Since 1995, the Champions League has been available on five different US carriers, not including satellite television of the late 1980s and early ‘90s and pay-per-view from 1992-95. It was the 1995-96 season that ESPN purchased the broadcasting rights to the Champions League, which featured play-by-play announcer Derek Rae and the color commentary of Tommy Smyth calling games from ESPN’s headquarters in Connecticut. Anyone watching in those days will fondly recall Smyth’s description of a goal as “a bulge in the old onion bag.”
Those were heady years for ESPN as soccer continued to gain mainstream acceptance among American sports fans. Airing the Champions League allowed the the sport to be seen on SportsCenter alongside baseball and basketball highlights. The cable network held the broadcasting rights to the World Cup at the time and grabbed the Premier League in 1996, albeit for only two years on ESPN2. It again held those rights in 2010 through 2013 with Ian Darke doing play-by-play and color analysis from former England international Steve McManaman.
It was the 2009-10 season that Fox Sports, the biggest competitor to ESPN in the US soccer TV market at the time, won the rights to air the Champions League. Along with the Europa League, Fox Sports provided live coverage on its various channels such as Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Deportes and regional Fox Sports Net affiliates. The 2010 final aired for free on Fox, the first time in US history on network TV.
For UEFA, getting this much exposure to American audiences was also seen as a marketing bonus. That was something European clubs like Manchester United and Juventus started capitalizing on with summer tours starting in the late ‘90s.
“Outside of Europe we also want to allow the greatest number of people possible the chance to follow the showpiece final of the best club football competition in the world,” said then-UEFA President Michel Platini. “I am delighted that thanks to Fox Sports this will now be possible, as for the first time ever, the UEFA Champions League Final will be live on a nationwide broadcast channel right across the USA.”
That 2010 final, won by Inter Milan 2-0 against Bayern Munich, scored a 1.2 ratings, equal to 2.2 million viewers. TV ratings for the tournament have steadily increased since then as the game continues to enter the consciousness of more sports fans over the past decade and brings in younger demographics. The Champions League’s years on Fox, ending in 2018, were very good and highlighted by the broadcast team of John Strong and former USMNT midfielder Stuart Holden.
In 2018, Turner Sports won the broadcasting rights, signaling a turning point for the Champions League on US television. TNT and B/R Live, a new streaming service, had far fewer viewers compared to ESPN and Fox Sports. For starters, Turner opted to use world feed broadcasters instead of using a US-based one for games. At the same time, Spanish-language broadcaster Univision and TUDN, formerly known as Univision Deportes, acquired the US Spanish-language rights, which included Euro 2020 and the UEFA Nations League.
The pandemic also forced the Champions League to pause this past March, forcing the tournament’s knockout rounds to conclude in August. CBS Sports acquired the rights starting in 2021 through the 2023-24 season. They took over this summer after Turner Sports terminated its contract. CBS Sports, however, aired matches, including the final won by Bayern Munich, on its CBS All Access streaming platform. The move pushed the tournament off cable television, with many US fans opting to watch the games in Spanish.
This season, CBS said it plans to air Champions League matches on both terrestrial television, via the CBS Sports Network, and CBS All Access. A two-hour program called “The Golazo Show” will air as an NFL Network-style “Red Zone” show.
“With multiple matches being played simultaneously across Europe, we wanted to give soccer fans a fun way to experience that excitement and see every goal from every match as well as all the key moments as they happen,” Dan Weinberg, Executive Vice President for Programming at CBS Sports, said in a news release. “‘The Golazo Show’ will keep fans updated throughout the day’s action with all the goals and latest results, bringing them highlights as soon as they occur while also providing expert analysis – all at a single destination.”
That’s yet another evolution for the Champions League on American television.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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Logo courtesy of UEFA