CBS Wins U.S. Champions League TV Rights From TNT — Here’s Why This Could Actually Be Bad

TNT will (thankfully) be replaced after the 2020-21 season, but not by ESPN, NBC or Fox. Let’s hope they do it right.

Well, we did not expect this. The U.S. Champions League TV rights went up for bidding recently and, according to Sports Business Journal, CBS has pulled off a surprising coup.

As first scooped by John Ourand, CBS won the English-language U.S. Champions League TV rights for the 2021-22 season through the 2023-24 season. Univision, meanwhile, held on to the Spanish-language rights for a second cycle.

Turner Sports (TNT and B/R Live) is in the second of three years owning the U.S. Champions League TV rights. Prior to that, Fox owned the rights and back in the olden days of UCL on TV in the U.S., Tommy Smyth called matches on ESPN. Fox, ESPN and NBC all battled with CBS for the UCL TV rights.

How much did CBS pay for the Champions League TV rights?

Turner Sports and Univision were paying close to $100 million per year for the TV rights (though it’s unclear how it was divided between English and Spanish). The upcoming three-year deals will see CBS and Univision pay a combined $150 million per year, according to SBJ. World Soccer Talk reported CBS will pay $110 million of that. 

CBS is a surprise entry into the world of soccer. The last time CBS broadcast soccer it was covering the NASL from 1967-1976 and the 1974 World Cup (CBSSN did 12 NASL matches in 2016). Ourand described it as a “stealth bid” and a boost to the upcoming merger between CBS and Viacom.

According to SBJ, ESPN had bid on both the English- and Spanish-language Champions League TV rights to carry on ESPN+. NBC and Telemundo also made a joint bid for both languages. Fox Sports did make an English-language bid but was reportedly not aggressive, and we don’t mind that because Fox never really cared about soccer (or, if we’re being honest, anything other than macho bro sports). ESPN recently took the Bundesliga rights from Fox for ESPN+ and NBCSN was trying to build on its successful stewardship of the Premier League in America. 

(For all you Arsenal fans out there wondering about the Europa League rights, no announcement has been made for those. UEFA didn’t sell the UCL and EL TV rights together this time as it instead put the Europa League and the new Europa Conference League in a separate category.)

What channel(s) will the Champions League be on and how much will it cost?

CBS will televise Champions League matches on its broadcast channel (CBS), cable sports network (CBSSN) and its streaming service (CBS All-Access). It’s unclear how the network will break down the broadcasts. 

Would CBS interrupt normal day-time programming like “The Price Is Right,” “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” to show the Champions League? Probably not. The network station will probably only show the final on CBS. 

That leaves CBSSN — the network’s cable sports TV channel available in about 50 million U.S. homes (compared to 95.3 million for TNT) — as the torch bearer for CBS. While steadily growing, the channel mostly survives on mid-major college sports, the WNBA and, well, that’s about it worthy of mention. People might actually start paying attention to CBSSN with the introduction of the Champions League, but fortunately we’ve got a couple years before we have to figure out what channel it’s on. 

The big question for Americans is this: How much of the Champions League will CBS put on its CBS All-Access OTT platform?

Turner Sports has alienated many American soccer fans by broadcasting just one UCL match at a time on TNT. Turner has ignored its other cable channels like TBS and truTV to put everything else on the recently launched B/R Live. Turner Sports’ streaming service is expensive for how little else is available beyond the UCL matches not on TNT, so most people have turned to Univision’s family of networks to watch the games. (This resulted in Univision posting U.S.-record viewership numbers last season.)

Will CBS follow a similar pattern to Turner Sports by putting most matches on All-Access? Or will it follow the lead of NBCSN, which prior to acquiring the Premier League rights was watched as little as CBSSN currently is?

We don’t really see another way around CBS putting most matches on All-Access, as it doesn’t have other channels to go to (although the Viacom merger could change that). CBSSN could create additional channels on match days (kind of like ESPN College Extra or how NBC used to offer all Premier League matches on bonus channels), but at this point it appears likely most UCL matches will be on CBS All-Access.

What is CBS All-Access? It’s CBS’s over-the-top streaming service, which currently has about eight million subscribers. Currently the only things worth watching on the network are “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” and reruns of CBS shows. 

CBS All-Access runs $5.99 per month with ads and $9.99 without. In comparison, B/R Live costs an absurd $9.99 per month and pretty much only shows Champions League and Europa League matches. 

What does it all mean?

CBS will have to hire an all-new cast of talent to cover the Champions League, seeing as it has no experience covering soccer of any kind.

Hopefully CBS doesn’t go the cheap route like Turner Sports has, asking current Fox broadcasters to moonlight on Champions League weekdays, adding unexperienced talent like Maurice Edu and Tim Howard (who have been adequate, for the record) and stupidly asking NBA legend Steve Nash to do analysis. Only once has TNT used its own broadcasters to call a match (and it was a disaster), so it’s unclear if CBS will do the same and use the international or British feeds or hire its own match broadcasters. Considering the last two Champions League TV rights holders have employed Gus Johnson and Steve Nash to call matches, CBS probably can’t do much worse — probably.

Whether or not CBS acquiring the Champions League TV rights is good or bad news remains to be seen for Americans. We thought Fox was bad, then TNT said “hold my beer,” so we’ll wait to pass judgment until we see what CBS’s plans are. If CBS creates more channels to broadcast the Champions League and makes it easy for all to access, this is a win for U.S. soccer fans. If CBS puts almost everything behind the CBS All-Access paywall, then it’s a lateral move, if not backward given the network’s inexperience.

It’s not hard to envision NBC or ESPN doing a good job with the UCL TV rights, but we honestly have no idea what to expect from CBS, a newcomer to the field. 

Until we learn more, we can only hope CBS follows the lead of NBC and not TNT.

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