By J Hutcherson (Jun 1, 2021) US Soccer Players – A few weeks ago, La Liga announced that it would move its broadcast rights in the United States from beIN Sport to ESPN, beginning with the 2021-22 season. The move required La Liga to buy back their broadcast rights in the US market since beIN Sports held them through 2023-24. The ESPN deal represents a bigger platform, even if it’s one crowded by a significant amount of soccer games alongside the rest of their growing portfolio.
In a statement from beIN Sport announcing the sale of the rights, La Liga president Javier Tebas made a familiar statement. “Given the constantly shifting US market, we believe that even more growth is possible for La Liga over the current cycle – not least with the 2026 FIFA World Cup on the horizon – and this agreement allows us to work with a new US partner that has bigger scale in the short term in this specific market.”
That applies across the board in the United States for the most obvious of reasons. Even with the direct competition from the major North American sports leagues, there’s enough interest to suggest opportunity. Soccer is the only sport in the world with so many professional leagues alongside the international schedule. It’s a glut of games, with more and more residing on streaming services. That’s a new twist to old questions about inventory and divided interest.
Perhaps the easiest way to see this is courtesy of Wikipedia’s Sports broadcasting contracts in the United States entry. Before scrolling all the way down to 18 where they list the soccer broadcast deals in this country, notice how many other sports properties have TV deals. It’s a massive amount of content. Then there’s soccer, massive in its own right with seemingly every competition ending up somewhere for a US audience to watch.
Back in the late 1990s when there were very limited amounts of live games on US television, this was already becoming an issue. Major League Soccer executives were asking early on what their ratings might look like if they weren’t competing with other soccer leagues and events. This was in an era before the organized summer tours with the biggest clubs in the world coming here on a regular schedule. Back then, the biggest problem was overlap with the Premier League season and the constant pressure from Mexico’s topflight. Now, it’s easy access to pretty much any league and tournament.
So many alternative options make finding an audience the broader issue. In theory, that shouldn’t be a problem for the leagues with clubs turned global brands and superstar players. That’s not how it necessarily plays out in the ratings in the United States. The safe expectation is that interest in Liga MX is stronger than any other league in this country. Then it’s likely the Premier League. How the other leagues slot in is something La Liga is trying to answer. They’re doing it as part of a global competition for foreign rights fees, something that’s a significant difference-maker for how much money Premier League clubs make.
That global competitiveness is part of the business model for all the major leagues in Europe. It’s a requirement to keep up with the spending power the broadcast rights fees provide for even smaller Premier League clubs. It’s an economic competition necessary to fund the kind of transfer budgets necessary to compete in Europe.
Meanwhile, there’s the situation for the domestic league in the United States. In this era of content far beyond what regular broadcast outlets can show on TV, this isn’t a question of protectionism. MLS will never know what it might be like to be the only professional soccer league available. That’s simply not possible. At the same time, we also don’t know what one of Europe’s elite leagues might be able to do in the US market on its own. The amount of competition will only lessen when broadcasters decide that at least some soccer properties aren’t worth the rights fees. Even then, enough competition will remain to make it difficult for any of those left to break out from the rest.
In the press release announcing the move, ESPN highlighted its soccer coverage. “The eight-year La Liga rights agreement adds to the industry-leading lineup of soccer on ESPN+, which currently includes Spain’s Copa Del Rey, the German Bundesliga, MLS, England’s FA Cup, EFL, and Carabao Cup, Dutch Eredivisie, Scottish Premiership, UEFA National Team Football, USL, and much more. In total, ESPN+ offers fans more than 2,900 matches per season.”
That’s a lot of soccer games, more than the entirety of the NBA, NHL, and NFL regular seasons combined, and that’s just one outlet. Figuring out what should count as a ratings success isn’t as easy as it is in those other sports. There’s so much, just getting above the median should count for something. Whether or not it counts enough is the ongoing question for soccer on TV in the United States.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- What did we learn from the 2020-21 European soccer season?
- Is the NFL the Premier League’s biggest competitor?
- Infantino asks about salary caps
- Mourinho’s move to Roma
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