As a kid growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I watched football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. I played soccer but rarely watched it on TV. It wasn’t easy to find international soccer on TV in the early 90’s. Regional sports networks occasionally carried a game, but aside from the World Cups, soccer on TV wasn’t big in the US. It wasn’t until Champions League came to ESPN and Fox Soccer came around, both in the mid to late 90s, that soccer became easier to watch on regular television. Even then it wasn’t nearly as prominent as the other 4 major sports.
Now nearly 3 decades later soccer is part of the zeitgeist in the US, it’s more mainstream here than at any point in history. The US can even call itself the reigning, defending, UNDISPUTED!! …ok I’m not going to go into my best Paul Heyman again, but we are the current World Cup Champions. And the networks are slowly snatching the sport from us. And my worry is that it may not stop with soccer.
1 Subscription, 2 Subscriptions, 3 Subscriptions, more?
This year, CBS has the US rights to broadcast Champions League Soccer and that’s fantastic! CBS is one of the most available networks, it’s available through most (if not all) cable packages and most digital à la carte streaming platforms. The wildly convoluted TV schedule, however, aired only two matches from each of the first and second legs on CBS Sports Network, available in 66.1% of American households. The remainder of the Second Leg is stuck behind a paywall on Paramount+ (CBS’s All Access Rebrand) and the Semifinals are as well with the games also airing on CBS Sports Network. Finally, we get to the final, which will air live on CBS. That’s one game on the flagship network.
It’s not the first time a network has put a major sporting event behind a paywall on their premium service. Earlier this year NBC put the then #1 and #2 teams, Liverpool vs Man United, behind a paywall on Peacock, NBCs streaming platform, and fans were noticeably upset.
The problem with putting live sports behind a paywall
Every league has a premium pass of some sort. While all are subject to those damn annoying regional and blackout restrictions, they do offer a lot of live out of market content. The problem with Peacock and CBS’s grab is they locked up major games behind a paywall and offered virtually nothing in return on the networks (that we already pay for). While Liverpool v Man U was available for an extra fee, NBCSN aired the UMass vs Fordham college basketball game, not exactly Baylor/Gonzaga. All this while the second leg of the Champions League is locked behind a similar wall, CBS had Dr. Phil reruns, and CBS Sports Network has Tiki & Tierney or essentially, radio on TV.
It would have been fine if there were say two CPL games on and one was on Paramount+. That would have been understandable. A lot of the EPL games are available on Peacock while NBC fronts the major games to NBC or NBCSN. And I suspect that when ESPN+ gets the rights to the NHL next year they will follow a similar pattern, opting to show the big draw games on ESPN or ESPN2 while putting other games on ESPN+ and that’s fine. We are used to paying for that “out of market” content.
But what CBS and NBC did with the CPL and EPL, respectively, would be like if Fox were to put the Week 1 Buccaneers Saints, Game of the Week, behind a paywall and aired Olympic pole-vaulting qualifiers instead.
The problem I have is not with the invention of Paramount+ or Peacock. On demand streaming is very popular and I get it. My gripe is the networks locking up live sports, which for years was available via our normal cable subscriptions or cable streaming services, behind a paywall and asking we pay more for it today than we did yesterday. How is that not Pay-Per-View sports?
At least ESPN will front their major games to their network first. With their Big 12 rights they will always put Baylor v OK State on ESPN while maybe putting a game like TCU v Iowa State with the same start time up on ESPN+.
Women’s soccer deserves more national attention and easier access for fans
FOX makes MLS available nationally on a near nightly basis, while CBS locks 77% of the NWSLs Challenge Cup up on Paramount+. Now that’s great for the Bar Rescues, Amazing Race, Young Sheldon crowd but I’d argue Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Mallory Pugh and the rest of the women of the NSWL deserve more national attention. Especially in an Olympic year when they, once again, hold the hopes of America soccer gold solely in their hands.
Will it stop with Soccer?
The problem I see with live sports being locked behind a paywall is it not ending with soccer. ESPN+ (the first of the pluses) brands itself as getting more than you would with regular ESPN. But if this subscription grab works with Paramount and Peacock, or if those platforms find that subscriptions are dropping at any time, will they start locking other sporting events behind a paywall? Could one of the Triple Crown races or the Masters find themselves behind a paywall? Currently, Warner Media is partnering with HBO Max, so it seems for the time being the NBA, MLB and College Basketball are safe. But who’s to say if these platforms see a huge bump in subscriptions that someone wouldn’t try to put the second round of the NBA playoffs behind a paywall or the AL or NLDS. Seems unlikely, but is it?
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