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Volume 23 No. 14
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Turner’s soccer shocker

Wins rights to UEFA Champions League

In a move that has shocked U.S. media companies, Turner Sports picked up the U.S. English-language media rights to the UEFA Champions League starting in fall 2018, according to multiple sources.

Turner, which has not carried soccer programming of any kind for at least 27 years, was a surprise bidder and aggressively committed more than $60 million per year as part of a three-year deal that runs through the spring of 2021, largely taking over a package that Fox Sports has held for nine years.

Turner will be joined by Univision, which agreed to pay around $35 million per year for the Spanish-language rights, giving UEFA a haul of close to $100 million per year for the U.S. rights to the annual soccer tournament. That’s a massive increase for UEFA, which currently brings in around $50 million per year for both English- and Spanish-language rights from Fox.

The biggest surprise, though, came from Turner, which last had soccer on its schedule with the World Cup in 1990. Turner outbid two networks — Fox and NBC — that have made huge investments in the sport over the past decade.

Another big surprise came from the fact that ESPN did not submit a formal bid. Instead, BAMTech, the technology company spun off from MLB Advanced Media, submitted a bid believed to be in the $35 million per year range that would have placed the tournament’s biggest games on ESPN’s TV channels and made most of them available on an over-the-top service. Last summer, ESPN parent company Disney paid $1 billion for a 33 percent stake in BAMTech.

UEFA told bidders that it would not accept joint bids, which is the main reason why BAMTech submitted a bid on its own without ESPN. ESPN has long been a big soccer supporter and currently holds rights to the European Championships and MLS.

This marks BAMTech’s first official foray in the sports rights market and suggests that digital companies will become much more active in trying to acquire rights.

Fox Sports, the incumbent English- and Spanish-language rights holder with the UEFA Champions League, signed its deal with great hype in 2009. That deal expires at the end of the 2017-18 season. Fox’s bid to retain the package was far less than Turner’s, sources said. Fox carries a lot of high-profile soccer programming, including the World Cup and MLS.

NBC Sports Group also submitted what has been described as a “token bid,” sources said. NBC has made soccer a focal point of its weekend morning programming and has received plaudits for its English Premier League coverage on NBCSN. BAMTech’s bid was similar to Fox’s, and more competitive than NBC’s, but not competitive enough to send the bidding process into a second round.

It’s not clear where Turner will carry the Champions League games on television. It is certain to place the games on one of its cable channels: TBS, TNT or truTV — three channels that have distribution footprints of more than 87 million homes.

Turner’s move to pick up the rights could benefit AT&T, which is in the process of acquiring Turner’s parent, Time Warner. AT&T owns a wireless business and satellite operator (DirecTV) — businesses that would love to have control over packages of sports content.

Turner’s interest in the deal also could be rooted in its digital aspirations, especially since most Champions League games are midweek contests played in Europe’s prime time — which is afternoon in the United States when most people are at work.

Earlier this year, Turner and NBC Sports Group combined their streaming services (Playmaker Media and iStreamPlanet) to better compete with BAMTech.

While Turner has not carried soccer in decades, it has made several aggressive sports media moves, from launching ELeague with WME-IMG to renewing its NCAA tournament deal with CBS through 2032. Turner also has been mentioned as a potential bidder for the UFC when those rights come to market next year.

On the Spanish-language front, Univision picked up the rights over the next three years. Fox did not submit a bid for them this time. Neither did ESPN, which owns ESPN Deportes. Sources said that NBC, which owns Telemundo, submitted a token bid for the Spanish-language rights.

For Univision, the move is another clear sign that the media company views live sports programming as the best way to grow its over-the-air channel, as it has invested heavily in soccer, including rights to MLS.

UEFA used the Switzerland-based company Team Marketing for its negotiations.