The abiding contradiction of soccer in America is that the more the sport grows, the less accessible it becomes. This is true in youth soccer, where playing at a high level became ever more expensive, pricing families out as the quality of the academies and travel circuits went up. But it’s also true for soccer on television.
Just a decade ago, the soccer rights were largely concentrated in just a few places. The World Cup, the European Championship and Major League Soccer were with ESPN. FOX Sports had the Champions League, the Europa League, the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Women’s Professional Soccer and MLS. Little GOL TV had Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga.
Three channels. That was it. A half-decent cable package had you covered for all of it, because ESPN and FOX both spread their packages over several channels.
It turned out to be a golden age for watching soccer stateside.
Today, ESPN has Serie A and the Bundesliga, but mostly on its ESPN+ streaming services, which costs $4.99 a month. It also has MLS, the European Championship, the UEFA Nations League and other assorted international games, some of them on TV, some of them on the app. FOX has been reduced to just the World Cup, the Women’s World Cup and the Club World Cup, and also retains MLS rights.
BeIN Sports has La Liga, France’s Ligue 1 and a mélange of South American soccer. NBC has the Premier League, some of it on TV and most of it on its Peacock app at $4.99 a month. CBS has the Champions League, NWSL and Europa League, and puts the key Champions League games on TV with the bulk on its All-Access app at $5.99 a month.
Meanwhile, a host of South and Central American World Cup qualifiers have somehow fallen into the hands of intermediaries who prefer to pawn the games on pay-per-view at a hefty $29.95 per game.
But fret not, you can buy a bundle for a mere $179.99 for a single round of qualifiers!
Just to get the major soccer events — the big four European leagues from England, Spain, Germany and Italy; the Champions League; and the World Cups — and have your pick of the games, you now need five channels and three separate streaming services. And that’s after you’ve canceled your subscription to the B/R Live app, where much of the Champions League aired last year while Turner Sports had the TV rights.
Most of the games on TV aren’t on the app, and vice versa. Between the cable subscription and another $17 a month in streaming subscriptions (assuming you don’t scale up to the pricier ad-free versions), that’s a hefty financial burden to put on soccer fans. There isn’t another sport in the United States that will tax your wallet so heavily just to watch the games.
In a sense, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soccer has become more popular stateside, its TV rights have become more valuable as competing channels bid up the price. Stronger ratings and commercial traction, after all, justified a bigger outlay for the choice leagues.
When NBC renewed its Premier League rights in 2015, it did so with a six-year, $1 billion deal for an average of $166 million per year. That just about doubled NBC’s 2013 EPL deal for three years and $250 million, an average of $83 million a year. That pact, in turn, more than tripled FOX’s three-year EPL deal that preceded NBC’s, which totaled nearly $80 million, or $26 million per year.
The Champions League rights, likewise, jumped from $100 million per year with Turner ahead of the 2018-19 season to $150 million annually with CBS starting in the 2021-22 campaign. Turner, too, reportedly paid much more than what FOX was previously paying, although exact numbers are hard to come by.
These skyrocketing rights fees have made it much harder for just two or three channels to hoard all of the soccer properties fans want to see. And those that do own rights feel compelled to find alternative revenue sources to help defray the cost — like putting games on subscription streams.
But it all redounds to higher barriers of entry for fans. Youth soccer is already the domain of the well-off. Watching soccer is on its way to the same place, excluding even much of the middle class with prohibitive costs.
There is no obvious solution to any of this. The European leagues will continue to seek every dollar that they can from their North American rights, and who can blame them? They are caught up in their own arms race. The American channels prioritize, and build their product around, the best leagues or events they can afford, rather than acquiring as many of them as possible. And then they have to recoup that investment, somehow.
Soccer’s upward trajectory in America’s culture and consciousness, however, could begin to level off as it becomes accessible to fewer and fewer people. As a television product, the game’s success is, in a sense, also devouring its audience.
And those who still can afford to watch are left trying to remember which game will air on what channel, or whether it was on that app after all.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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