A recent report from Futbol with Grant Wahl indicated that CBS Sports, Turner Sports and Amazon are the favorites to win U.S. Soccer’s English-language broadcast rights, beginning in 2023. The national federation is expected to select a single broadcast partner in the next 30-60 days.
CBS Sports (along with Paramount+) might seem like the most logical landing spot, having positioned itself as the home for English-speaking soccer fans with rights to the UEFA Champions League, USMNT road World Cup qualifiers and the NWSL, among others.
But former ESPN and The Walt Disney Company Europe, Middle East and Africa executive Charlie Boss (he’s currently chief commercial officer of The Jockey Club in the UK) said “platform economics” make Amazon the better fit. “When Amazon buys sports rights and broadcasts them on Prime, the hope isn’t that a subscriber will sign up for sports and stay for sports,” he said. “The hope is that the subscriber will sign up for sports and stay for free delivery and the ability to buy products [on the platform].” In other words, a subscriber is worth more to Amazon than he or she is to CBS Sports or Paramount+.
Our Take: ESPN and Fox Sports currently control the U.S. Soccer package in question. It is not clear if either is interested in retaining the rights (or the price they may be willing to pay). Both companies declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations/discussions with partners.
But it’s fair to theorize the exclusion of MLS games from the offering may be factoring in their respective decisions. “A lot of broadcasters [in the evolving media environment] are trying to pick up packages that have volume to allow themselves to have consistent programming and content for their SVOD services,” said William Mao (VP global media rights, Octagon). You don’t get that with the U.S. Soccer package sans MLS games.
The teams’ irregular schedule limits the number of business models that can generate a positive ROI on U.S. Soccer rights. As Boss explained, “It’s very hard [for an SVOD] to bring a subscriber on board and get them to stay on board [solely] for their love of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. So, [the rights] are much less valuable to a pure-play streaming product.”
Fox or ESPN could buy the rights and put the games on their linear networks. “But are they going to get a bigger carriage fee for doing so? Probably not,” Boss said.
Further depressing the value of the rights package for many broadcasters is the USMNT’s status as an automatic qualifier for the 2026 World Cup (to be held across North America). “In the first [few] years of the next cycle, there just aren’t any men’s qualifiers that are going to be of consequence,” Mao said. Instead, those games will be replaced by relatively meaningless international friendlies. And while the women’s qualifiers will have meaning, the team is as close to a lock to qualify as there could be.
Mao agreed that it probably did not make sense for ESPN to pay a premium for the package. Between the lack of inventory and consequential games over the next couple of years, U.S. Soccer would be unlikely to drive enough new subscribers on either the traditional linear side or the ESPN+ side.
That should not be a problem with Amazon, though (even though they would like sports content to help grab subs and reduce churn for Prime). The ecommerce platform can use irregularly scheduled USMNT and USWNT games as individual marketing windows. “It gives them a much better chance at monetizing the consumer than a pure-play streaming subscription would,” Boss explained.
U.S. Soccer seems to be the type of rights package Amazon would pursue seriously, too. It is a tier one domestic property, the company has some experience showcasing soccer in the U.S. (so it would not be an entirely new test & learn situation), and without MLS included, it is “more digestible as a first go on a national tier one soccer package,” said Mao. The company took a similar approach in the U.K., obtaining EPL rights in just two match day windows.
What is less clear is why Turner Sports would be a potential landing spot. The company “made its big play in Soccer with UEFA Champions League in 2018/2019, but the relationship was short-lived and Turner opted out early,” Mao noted (CBS actually picked up the balance of the Turner cycle). It is also not clear which digital platform WarnerMedia is prepared to put their sports efforts behind (B/R Live or HBOMax).
U.S. Soccer’s decision to award the package to a single broadcaster runs counter to the approach taken by the big four leagues (which have sliced and diced up their schedules). In theory, awarding the entire package to a single broadcaster could help U.S. Soccer extract a premium for the rights and make it easier for fans to find games (unless they split the games between a linear network and owned SVOD). It might also entice a broadcaster to invest more heavily into the property, which could only help the sport continue to grow. “A single partner who can really help build interest ahead of the 2026 World Cup makes a lot of sense,” Boss said.
The current package is worth $90 million/year, though that includes MLS rights. But it’s hard to imagine the federation will see the same 70% to 100% increase the big four sports have drawn over the last 12 months.