Friday Newsletter: The U.S. Has Gone From Being One of the World's Worst Countries to Watch Soccer on TV in to One of the Best
New men's UEFA Champions League Deal for CBS (6 years, $1.5 billion) is latest example soccer has passed ice hockey in the U.S. as a major sport; Plus I answer your Mailbag questions
The big news landed on Friday: CBS Sports/Paramount has extended its contract with UEFA for the U.S. English-language rights for the men’s UEFA Champions League and other UEFA club tournaments. This time it’s for twice the term length (six years instead of three) and a 2.5-times increase of the annual value for a total of $1.5 billion (or $250 million a year).
The move continues the relentless growth in the value of soccer broadcast rights in the United States. Some perspective: It wasn’t that long ago—like, the late 1990s—when the U.S. was one of the worst countries in the world in which to watch soccer. Just read Steve Rushin’s hilarious 1999 column about it. Now the U.S. is one of the best.
Here’s a rundown of some of the major U.S. soccer TV broadcast deals as it now stands:
There’s a lot to digest here:
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• The NWSL seems wildly undervalued given the audiences it has pulled for games on big CBS, which rival and sometimes exceed the over-the-air audiences for MLS games.
• Fox and Telemundo got sweetheart, well-below-market deals on the 2026 World Cup rights when FIFA awarded them on a no-bid basis to avoid being sued for moving World Cup 2022 from June-July to November-December. And that was especially the case when FIFA awarded ‘26 hosting rights to the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
• When you add up the payments for soccer rights, which are much more fragmented than other major sports, U.S. companies are now paying significantly more overall for soccer rights than they are for ice hockey rights (the NHL is currently getting $625 million/year from its U.S. rights holders). Just the incomplete list above of soccer rights is worth $1.44 billion per year.
Long story short: Soccer is now much bigger than ice hockey in the U.S. as a major professional sport. And the list above doesn’t even include Liga MX, the most popular domestic league in the U.S., which sells its rights by team and not by league.
• The men’s UEFA Spanish-language rights for the U.S. still await being sold. I’m told there’s a delay because Spanish-language streaming platforms like Univision’s Vix are just getting going. Clearly, though, this will be another big number whenever the deal gets done.
• The recent trend is for longer-lasting broadcast deals. The new UEFA, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and MLS rights deals are all for longer terms than the deals used to be. And that makes more sense, since channels will invest more in long-term promotion of their properties if they know they won’t be losing them in three years.
• Just look at how many different U.S. broadcast companies are now investing in soccer rights. You’ve got all four major over-the-air English-language networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC). You’ve got one giant streaming company (Apple), while another (Amazon) was CBS’s biggest competitor for the Champions League rights. You’ve got a big cable/streaming company (Turner) and the two Spanish-language giants (Univision and Telemundo).
The upside is we have the chance to see basically all the soccer in the U.S. these days. The downside is that if you like watching all the different leagues, the services you pay for to watch them add up.
• Streaming is here to stay, especially for soccer. In the U.S., at least, fútbol is a pillar for the streaming strategies of CBS, ESPN and NBC. (And if you hadn’t noticed, Spanish-language Vix recently went to a pay model.) If you’re a cord-cutter like me, it’s cool that you can get every Champions League game (on Paramount+), every La Liga and Bundesliga game on ESPN+ and every MLS game on Apple TV+ without having to pay for a cable-like package a la YouTubeTV. It’s also why I dislike the way NBC presents the Premier League, which requires you to pay for multiple paywalls and get a cable-equivalent package for USA-exclusive games.
Full disclosure: I do some (non-exclusive) work for CBS.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
NBC is sending Peter Drury and co. to Bournemouth-Arsenal on Saturday (on big NBC) and Man Utd-Liverpool on Monday (obviously) but not Leeds-Chelsea on Sunday. Any surprise/disappointment from you?
Media friend who asked not to be named
I’m surprised NBC hasn’t done more to promote the Leeds United games this season, since Leeds now has a U.S. coach (Jesse Marsch) and two USMNT stars (Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams). This decision adds to that surprise. Maybe they don’t want Drury doing three games in the same weekend very often?
How does U.S. Soccer pick jersey designs, and why are they so bad?
The best story I’ve read on how kits get designed is by Pablo Maurer for The Athletic on MLS. I’m not sure what the exact process is between Nike and U.S. Soccer, but both deserve blame for the USMNT World Cup kit designs that leaked this week and received near-universal criticism from fans and even Weston McKennie and Tim Weah.
Which club (other than Leeds United) would you pick to be featured in the next "All or Nothing" season?
Probably PSG. Even the on-field clip showing the uncomfortable interactions between Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi over the past week showed there must be a massive ego situation in that locker room. Woe be unto any coach (good luck, Christophe Galtier!) who has to try and manage that. I’ve changed my mind over the past year and realized that the successful tradition some clubs have (Real Madrid) and some clubs don’t have (PSG) does indeed make a difference in performance. If your players have enormous egos and don’t respect the history of the club, bad things can happen behind the scenes on a regular basis. But I’d love to see those things in a PSG All or Nothing!
You have been a stalwart of the soccer sports journalism scene. Obviously your Substack business model signals a change in the way we consume sports content. I'm curious what your thoughts are on the short-term and long-term outlook of the soccer media landscape.
Well, the TV conversation at the top of this column suggests that the long-term outlook for televised soccer in the U.S. is quite good! As for soccer journalism in the U.S., and journalism in general, that’s a bit more murky in the long term. Local newspapers are largely struggling. Free sites have a lot of annoying ads, clickbait and dumb stories. The outlets that actually produce stories you’re going to remember are typically subscription sites like the ones on Substack (including mine), The Athletic and the New York Times (which are actually the same company now). As much as the sport of soccer is growing in the U.S. right now, you’d hope that U.S. soccer journalism would be growing with it. But that’s sadly not the case. That’s why I hope enough people will subscribe to GrantWahl.com!
How do they fix Manchester United? How long will it take?
The answer to this could be an entire column. Manchester United needs new ownership, needs a real sporting director with a long-term philosophy, needs that sporting director to hire the head coach, needs to have players who fit the long-term philosophy of the sporting director. One thing Man United does have is money, which should help, even if it hasn’t in recent years. But the process to do all the things I just mentioned will take a few years. New cultures don’t get established overnight.
I am a big USMNT fan. Is there one good website/newsletter that provides a good consolidated synopsis of how each USMNT player played at their respective clubs the past week. If I don't have time to watch the club games, it is hard to tell how these guys are doing.
I think everyone at Scuffed is doing a good job on keeping people very up to date on USMNT (and lately USWNT) players. Brain Sciaretta also does a good job on this front.
As a D.C. United loyal fan, I would love to hear your thoughts on Wayne Rooney as our coach. Thanks. I read your every published word.
Thanks for reading! Granted, we don’t have a lot of data points yet, but what Rooney accomplished at Derby County, nearly keeping the team up despite a huge points penalty, was incredible. I think he’s a future Premier League coach, and I like the way he has gone about not trying to take a Premier League job as soon as humanly possible. I don’t think he’ll be in D.C. that long, but if he’s not, that’s actually a good sign for what he’s about to accomplish with a team that looked pretty awful before he took over.
USMNT fans seem to want a serious soccer broadcast and pre/post game. I’m NFL, MLB and NBA too. I hate the nonsense, jokes, bits and comedy and just want pure intelligent analysis. I think NBC Sports has done this with the EPL. ESPN at times has done this with international games. Can we count on the World Cup on Fox treating us, the fans, like adults and not trying to “Americanize” the broadcast?
We could talk for a while on this one. So much of what we like or don’t like in sports studio shows is personal taste. I’m not even sure that your first statement—USMNT fans seem to want a serious broadcast—is backed up by what audiences actually prefer. I mean, the NFL has the most-watched studio shows of any sport, and those studios are what I would generally call “chuckle fests.” I’ve got no problem with having fun, but chuckle fests turn me off and I would prefer more intelligent conversation, analysis and reporting. That includes actual tactical discussions, which so many U.S. soccer studio shows seem afraid of presenting, as if they’ll be deemed “too smart” for their audiences.
Still, that’s my personal taste. One expected benefit of having many U.S. channels broadcasting soccer now (see above) is that each channel will have its own philosophy on how it approaches broadcasts and studio shows. I agree with you that NBC has the most intelligent studio analysis, followed by a tie of CBS/ESPN (though I wish Roberto Martínez was still on CBS; he was so smart and clearly watched a lot of games on the Continent). Fox seems to be mostly about embrace debate. We’ll see which directions Turner and Apple (produced by MLS) go in. I’m hoping Turner learned a lesson from what happened with its previous Champions League experience: Hire producers that are actual soccer people, and don’t strain every vein in your neck trying to be young and hip.
At this point it's pretty obvious there is more broken at MLS side Atlanta United than Achilles tendons and ACLs. When will the front office (minus the recently departed Darren Eales) be held to account?
The downward trend in Atlanta is starting to be long-term at this point, and the person with the most pressure on him is probably technical director Carlos Bocanegra. I was surprised he got a contract extension last November, but I don’t think that necessarily takes him off the hot seat, especially when owner Arthur Blank demands results and has already seen success when Tata Martino was the coach.
Have a great weekend!
I don’t think I dispute that soccer generally is more popular than the NHL in the US, but the 625m number doesn’t include any of the 24 local market deals that carry the vast majority of the games. Also, while the sheer dollar number is quite impressive for the various leagues, the fact of the matter is that comparing the one hockey league of interest to the many leagues/competitions of interest for soccer isn’t really comparing apples to apples.
All that said, the ability to watch any soccer game I basically want from anywhere in the United States is quite an amazing difference from the 90’s
I agree with your thoughts on "chuckle fests". Clint Dempsey is my favorite player of all time but seeing him "chuckle" with Davies, Edu and Gooch didn't work at all for me. Maybe I'm just an old man who doesn't understand the sneakers-with-suits look and all the rest of the stuff they discussed.