Wednesday’s report in the New York Post that the Bundesliga was on the verge of switching from FOX Sports to ESPN for its next US broadcast contract starting in 2020 resulted in a highly polarized reaction from US based Bundesliga fans.
One side rejoiced at the reported move, the other was highly critical of it.
The report did not disclose the financial or time length terms of the deal. What it did speculate on was which ESPN platform the majority of matches would be broadcast on and this was what brought about the polarized reaction.
The divide between the two sides can largely be traced to how each individual Bundesliga fan, regardless of club affiliation, prefers to watch the league’s matches and consume its product.
Those that prefer to watch matches on the internet were in the happy camp. Those that prefer to watch on television were in the critical camp.
Let’s first take a look at why each side likely reacted the way it did, and then look at the reasons why the Bundesliga ultimately could’ve come to this decision.
Under the current deal with FOX, a typical Bundesliga weekend schedule of matchdays (1 match on Friday, 5-6 on Saturday, 2-3 on Sunday) will feature 5 or 6 of the 9 matches on one of two FOX cable networks, FS1 and FS2. The remaining matches are available on FOX’s online streaming service, Fox Sports Go.
FS1 is usually part of the standard basic cable television package offered by many cable providers in the US, such as Comcast Xfinity or AT&T, so large segments of the population has access to at least 1 weekly Bundesliga match. FS2 is sometimes only available as part of an expanded cable package, which costs extra, so the matches featured on that network aren’t as readily accessible. However, they are still not difficult to obtain for a dedicated Bundesliga fan.
Cable is how the biggest portion of the American viewing audience consumes its televised content, particularly when it comes to sports. Each of the Big 4 American sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) has an agreement with a major television network for its playoff system, while each team’s regular season games, with the exception of the NFL, are largely carried by a local network for said team’s corresponding city.
For many years, the thought process has been that if a league or team wasn’t on cable television on a regular basis, it was at a serious disadvantage as compared to competitors that were.
As the Post’s report indicated, the move to ESPN likely means that the majority of Bundesliga matches will not be featured on cable television. Rather, they will be featured on ESPN’s online streaming subscription service, ESPN+. This means that those Bundesliga fans in America who watch league matches on television will either have to purchase an ESPN+ subscription or hope that a few matches will be featured on one of ESPN’s cable networks. Taking the Bundesliga off of American television will certainly impact the accessibility of its matches for the majority of American households and is a definite risk.
While cable television remains the primary method of content consumption for the majority of Americans, in the last decade or so, new services via the internet have altered how a significant percentage of the American population consumes this content, including sports.
Online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have exploded in the last few years. These services offer movies, original content, and full season’s worth of cable television shows. Their popularity and cost effectiveness compared to basic cable packages, along with the availability of high-speed internet connections, has caused an increasing number of American households to become “cord-cutters” and have no cable television at all.
The majority of these “cord-cutting” households are younger Americans. A Pew Research study from 2017, indicates that 61% of US adults in the 18-29 age bracket use online streaming services as their primary means of watching television, as opposed to less than 10% of Americans over 50 years of age.
As these viewers are the ones who will be consuming the most content in the upcoming years, networks have been forced to adjust their normal way of distributing content in order to accommodate “cord-cutters”.
Sports leagues are adapting to this change in landscape as well. The English Premier League, while having a majority of its matches televised, has every league match available online in the US. And each of the Big 4 leagues has an online streaming package available. These enable fans of a specific team who live out of that team’s market to still watch the games live. It’s how this Chicago White Sox fan is able to catch all of their games while living in Massachusetts.
Moving the majority of Bundesliga matches to ESPN+ will arguably make the league’s content more accessible for the younger US audience of “cord-cutters”, an audience that will likely continue to grow as the years pass.
Why Go With ESPN?
With the diverging viewpoints in mind, we can make a pretty educated guess as to why the Bundesliga decided to ditch FOX Sports and go with ESPN for its next US deal and it involves a number of factors.
In an article with the Hollywood Reporter in the Spring, in which the Bundesliga’s next TV rights contract in the US was discussed, Bundesliga International CEO Robert Klein indicated that the league wanted to target specific group(s) of the American audience.
“There is research that shows [in the U.S.] in the age group of 0 to 18 a growth in the last 10 years in terms of uptake of the sport and also the following,” Klein said. “With this information, we’re able to target our strategy to the right potential consumers and in the right manner. That also involves going to the right commercial and digital partners to create a constant narrative around our [soccer] season…”
It is wise for the Bundesliga to target the younger American audience, not just 0 to 18, but also the 18 to 29 bracket. It’s this audience that is becoming more invested in soccer as a whole, as opposed to the older age brackets which are less likely to break away from the Big 4 sports that they’ve followed intensely for decades.
Having the majority of its matches available online, which the majority of the younger audience is now using to consume the majority of its content, could be a very shrewd move.
Expanding and Leveraging Online Presence
In terms of quality and quantity of their online content among the European leagues, the Bundesliga is only really rivaled by the EPL in its excellence.
It makes sense that they would want to continue to expand their well-established online presence by moving their match content online as well.
Expanding US Viewership
The ultimate goal for the Bundesliga in America is to expand its presence and viewership in the market.
To achieve that goal, and target the younger audience, they would want to partner with an American broadcast network that can provide them with a strong online presence, in addition to the network capacity and bandwidth, and production capability that is necessary in order to cover a European soccer league properly.
Of all the networks in the US, three have the presence, capacity and bandwidth, and production capabilities to do this: ESPN, FOX, and NBC.
NBC is the EPL’s broadcast partner in America and it does a damn good job of not only giving the league a fantastic broadcast, but also promoting the league through its share of television and online networks. If an EPL match isn’t on television, it can be easily found on NBC’s online streaming platform, which is typically excellent.
When NBC covers a sport, be it the EPL, the NHL, NASCAR, or Sunday Night NFL, it usually does it very well.
Unfortunately for the Bundesliga, with the EPL already on its plate, NBC really doesn’t have the bandwidth and capacity to cover two major European leagues, whose match windows often overlap.
That leaves FOX, the Bundesliga’s current partner, and ESPN, their reported new partner.
Both networks have the presence and production capability that the Bundesliga requires. But unlike NBC, both networks also have other broadcast agreements with college football, the NFL, and college basketball that are likely to conflict with Bundesliga broadcasts, particularly on Saturdays.
Straight up, neither network has the ideal capacity and bandwidth available to do what NBC does for the EPL. It’s why under the current contract, most Bundesliga matches are shown on lesser television channels such as FS2 that not everyone has easy access to.
So given that neither network has the bandwidth to get the majority of the matches on easily accessible network television, it means that having a strong online streaming presence is crucial when a league is deciding between them.
And between FOX and ESPN, the choice is easy.
ESPN is by far a better streaming service than FOX. Soccer matches have been a mainstay on its online streaming platform for the past decade or so, going back to the ESPN3 platform which eventually morphed into ESPN+. ESPN currently streams matches from Serie A, the FA Cup, and Germany’s own DfB-Pokal on ESPN+. The streams are almost always of high quality, with few technical issues, and are widely available for replay.
FOX’s streaming service is good when it works, but reports of numerous technical issues have surfaced over the course of the Bundesliga’s current partnership with FOX. The sport of soccer also doesn’t have as big of a presence on FOX’s platform as it does on ESPN’s platform, particularly in an international sense.
ESPN+ is also part of a much larger online umbrella of services than FOX is.
ESPN’s parent company is the Walt Disney Company. Disney also owns the Hulu streaming service and will soon launch a third streaming service, Disney+, which will feature all of Disney’s animated movies, Marvel content, Star Wars content, and Disney television shows.
This multiple platform partnership could ultimately benefit the Bundesliga by making its content more widely accessible and more affordable for viewers.
At their Investor Day presentation in April, Disney indicated that it would likely bundle all 3 of its main streaming platforms, Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+, in a single discounted rate for viewers who subscribe to all 3 platforms.
A monthly subscription to ESPN+ alone currently costs $4.99; a yearly subscription is $49.99, both of which cost less than Fox Sports Go. The monthly cost for Hulu’s basic package is currently $5.99 per month. Disney+ has not yet announced its monthly cost, but it will probably be in the same ballpark. A bundled package of all 3 services will likely reduce the cost of each individually for a viewer, and make it easier for viewers to access Disney’s large content collection.
Working with ESPN could also increase the likelihood, however slim, of cross promotion for the Bundesliga across Disney’s streaming network. It’s possible we could see Bundesliga ads during Hulu TV re-broadcasts, or Bundesliga match promos before Marvel movies. Such promotion, particularly of the league’s increasing number of young American stars, could introduce the league to new viewers. With the matches being broadcast on a part of the same Disney network, it would make it easier for those viewers to access Bundesliga matches and content if they so wish.
FOX’s streaming service straight up can’t match that potential and FOX’s promotion of the league across its network of services has left much to be desired. The match broadcasts are fine, but the network hasn’t gone above and beyond to promote the league, as opposed to what NBC does for the EPL.
ESPN also has the ability to produce better soccer content than FOX. We can use the World Cup tournaments as a direct comparison between the two.
FOX recently took over the US rights to the men’s and women’s World Cup tournaments from ESPN. While FOX did a creditable job broadcasting both the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Women’s World Cup, its coverage did not quite reach the heights that ESPN’s did in previous tournaments, such as the 2010 and 2014 world cups, which was widely praised.
ESPN, when it wants to, can also offer better analysis than FOX.
Bundesliga fans have been bemoaning Alexi Lalas’s “analysis” for years and pining for an alternative. While Lalas means well, he never played in Germany and was never part of the Bundesliga culture, so he really doesn’t do a good job of conveying what makes the Bundesliga unique to other leagues. ESPN would do well, if possible, to bring in an analyst like Owen Hargreaves, and utilize current network analysts such as Kasey Keller. Both have playing experience in the Bundesliga and understand its culture in ways that other analysts like Lalas do not.
A weekly Bundesliga recap show, similar to ESPN+’s existing MLS Rewind or NBC’s Premier League Live, would also be greatly appreciated by Bundesliga fans.
And even if the majority of matches are broadcast online, there remains the distinct possibility that bigger matches, such as the Revierderby, will end up being shown on network television if there’s no big conflict with another sport.
The Bundesliga knows what it wants in terms of its next US broadcast partnership.
It wants to reach a higher number of viewers by targeting the market’s largest demographic for soccer consumption, utilizing and leveraging its already strong online presence.
While FOX did a fine job of taking the Bundesliga to a higher place in the US than it previously was, it really hasn’t taken the extra steps necessary to get the league where it wants.
ESPN offers a larger network, a better online streaming service, and a larger potential reach for the league and, when it wants to, can offer a superior league broadcast than FOX can.
It will certainly be a change for some Bundesliga viewers in America who have grown accustomed to watching matches on television, but if the Bundesliga and ESPN can work effectively together, this deal has the potential to take the Bundesliga to the next level that it has wanted to get to in the US for years.