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Fox Sports Finally Announces Its Acquisition of the US Champions League Rights

I sat in on a media conference call this afternoon to hear Fox Sports officially announce its acquisition of the US media rights to the Champions League. According to Fox Sports International Executive Vice President and General Manager David Sternberg, who is surely not the first American TV executive to have a business card run to three pages, Fox will be relying on the following phrases to convey the broad import of its plan for European football: “partner with,” “unprecedented coverage,” “most prestigious,” “family of networks,” “important property,” and “unrivaled access.” On the phone before the conference started we were listening to some light hold-music, and it was amazing how seamlessly the existential non-pop segued into the tone of the event itself.

I don’t mean that as a criticism, exactly. When in Rome, after all, you PowerPoint as the Romans do, and Sternberg did offer gratifying reassurance on two points: FSC will be broadcasting in HD by the end of the year, in time for the knockout rounds of the 2009-10 tournament; and Fox is “closely looking at” using the international commentary feed rather their own in-house announcers. (At one point Sternberg even described this as “the likeliest outcome.”) He framed the choice by emphasizing the fact that the international commentators are at the match rather than in a studio in North America: whenever you can use on-site announcers, he said, “you have to have a very good reason not to,” a phrase which doesn’t exactly ring out with hope for Max Bretos. Personally I care more about using good announcers than using proximate ones, but since they’re the same announcers in this case, I’m happy to run with the logic.

News-wise, not much was divulged beyond what already appeared in the AP story this morning—no word on how much Fox paid for the rights or whether Jeremy St. Louis’s Twitter feed will ever see the light of day again. The basics are that Fox will air 110 Champions League games each season (31 live and 79 delayed) across various Fox networks, while Setanta North America, with whom Fox is conspiring to use the word “partner” as a verb in this endeavor, will get second choice of the matches and will also show games online on a pay-per-view and “tournament ticket” basis. Setanta.com’s “broadband product” will be relaunching next month, so prepare to be vaguely aware that that’s happening.

In the end, I left, as I was undoubtedly meant to, with a somewhat more positive view of Fox’s plans for the tournament. I don’t care at all about the corporate landscape that this deal supposedly remakes; the raging issue of whether this is a “coup” for Fox or a “serious blow” for ESPN’s soccer hopes matters to me only to the extent that the move affects my viewing experience and that of other fans in America. So it’s good to know, at least, that there will be more Champions League matches broadcast each year under Fox’s regime than under ESPN’s, that there will be prime-time rebroadcasts for people who miss matches at work, that the games will soon be available in HD, and that Fox is at least leaning toward using the best available announcers.

I still have questions about access: people still have to seek out and pay for FSC, and the plan to apportion the games among different Fox networks with different degrees of market penetration means that even those who write checks to both Fox and Setanta could still miss out on matches. I don’t, for instance, have F/X, which means that I’ll be paying the company that’s broadcasting the Champions League for access to its Champions League matches, but still not getting the Champions League final.

But then, no one ever said being a soccer fan in America would be easy. And the best thing about Fox at the moment is probably that, whatever their production-values gap with ESPN, they have the most riding on finding ways to make it easier. As Sternberg said at the end of the press conference, folding Setanta North America CEO Roger Hall into the sentiment, “we look forward to the next three years of exploiting this together.”

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Fox Sports Finally Announces Its Acquisition of the US Champions League Rights

by Brian Phillips · April 2, 2009

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