Making sense of the Fox Soccer/UEFA parternship

Last week’s Champions League matches on ESPN had to feel a little bittersweet for the sports television giants. Whilst they do have this week’s second-leg quarter-finals matches and the rest of the tournament left, the rest of the Champions League will be a curtain call of sorts for ESPN’s 15-year coverage of the European campaign until at least 2012-13.

Taking over for ESPN will be Fox Sports Network (most importantly Fox Soccer Channel), who came to an agreement with UEFA on a new contract that was announced last week. The deal came as a surprise to no one, and that was largely due to some crack reporting and an assist from Fox Soccer’s own Jeremy St. Louis and his now deleted Twitter feed. Fox now hold the rights to broadcast all 146 Champions League matches on FSC, Fox Sports Espanol, and Fox Sports Net channels. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the stations — including Fox Soccer — won’t be “HD-ready” until the end of 2009.

Aside from the facts of the deal, what else should we expect from the new partnership? A conference call last week was supposed to answer some of those questions. Fox Sports International’s general manager David Sternberg and Roger Hall, CEO of Setanta Sports North America, took the time to answer some questions in the hopes of clearing up the muddy picture.

Will Fox Soccer be partnering with Setanta in the future? Why in the world is Fox Soccer opting to show the Champions League final on FX, a channel that for all intents and purposes is a drama network? Let’s take a minute to clear some things up…

Q: How many Champions League matches will FSN (Fox Sports Network) be showing with their current deal?

A: Based on what Sternberg said in his conference call, the network and its affiliates will be showing 16 live Champions League matches per year as well as the UEFA Super Cup for the next years. The deal could potentially (things are still in the works) include FSN adding matches to some of their regional affiliates including Fox SportsNet.

Q: Will all the matches be in HD?

A: Unlike ESPN, Fox has a bit of a problem on their hands. Their main soccer network, Fox Soccer Channel, is still without HD. Sternberg claims the company will have FSC HD-ready by the end of 2009.  That means you’ll be watching all of the matches without HD for the first half of the Champions League next year. After that FSN claims they’ll have things covered.

Q: Who’s going to commentate these matches? Will it be an international crew, or will Fox be employing members of their own staff?

A: As many know, Fox already has a crew in place to do weekly MLS matches. The only problem with employing that same crew to do Champions League matches is that they’d be doing the commentary from their studios in the States. Sternberg must realise that fact, because he’s already leaning towards employing UEFA’s on-site crew for each match. That means no more commentating from a studio! This could be the best news of all.

Q: Where does Setanta stand in this whole deal?

A: Judging from the comments made by Setanta NA’s CEO Roger Hall, the broadband version of Setanta will continue to cover some of the Tuesday and Wednesday matches of the Champions League. They claim that a upgraded version of their broadband site will be ready by next month, so that could be fairly interesting. Aside from that it doesn’t look like Setanta and Fox are in bed together at the moment. It appears that they’re merely working together on working together on Champions League rights. It should be interesting to see if their relationship grows in the coming years.

Q: Why in the world is Fox planning to show the Champions League final on FX (a non-sport channel) instead of on Fox Soccer Channel?

A: Unlike most of the world, soccer is still a secondary sport in North America. Aside from the draw of showing the final in HD, Fox is hoping to draw in non-soccer fans to watch the match. They’re essentially trying to tap into a source that has never experienced the sport. Whilst we don’t know what kind of reaction they’ll get, it’s safe to assume that Fox’s goal is to try and make European football a mainstream sport when it comes to the Champions League. Past efforts by ESPN to do this have proved futile — what Fox ends up getting in return from showing the game on a non-sport channel remains to be seen.

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