When the press release landed in our email inbox, we had to do a double take. "FIFA places media rights in U.S. and Canada until 2026," read the subject line.
"FIFA has extended its media rights agreements in the United States and Canada for its tournaments up to and including the 2026 FIFA World Cup™," the email began. "These extensions give Fox (English language) and NBCUniversal's Telemundo (Spanish language) in the United States and CTV/TSN in Canada exclusive broadcast rights to FIFA competitions during this period."
Nobody saw this coming. There had been no talk about the TV rights to the next round of World Cups – the deal also includes the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup and all of the youth World Cups, not to mention the beach soccer and futsal World Cups – being available for bidding.
The last time around, after all, there had been much buzz and speculation as ESPN (then the incumbent rights holder), NBC and FOX battled it out for soccer's foremost television property. FOX prevailed with a bid that was believed to be worth half a billion dollars.
FOX and Telemundo only just snapped up eight years of rights in October 2011. And FIFA, it is well understood, likes to incite bidding wars. So why do this so quietly, so soon after the last World Cup and, quite possibly, without opening up the tender to other bidders?
Twitter was quickly ablaze with speculation that FOX was given a sweetheart deal on 2026 to soothe its frayed nerves over 2022.
How does one (read FIFA) suddenly just "extend" WC rights for 4 more years? FOX now has rights through 2026 WC. Hmmm.
— Julie Foudy (@JulieFoudy) February 12, 2015
I’m sure that deal has nothing to do with FIFA trying to keep Fox happy if they shift the calendar for WC 2022.
— Dan Dickinson (@GothamistDan) February 12, 2015
Fox: "Screw a winter World Cup. Screw the corruption. WE WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS." FIFA: "Have 2026 too." Fox: "If you put it that way…"
— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) February 12, 2015
The international broadcasting behemoth (and full disclosure here: the author is a recent FOX Sports employee and a former ESPN employee) has made no secret of its virulent opposition to moving the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to winter, as it wreaks havoc on both its summer programming and winter NFL scheduling. It had even been suggested that FOX might sue FIFA over this.
Whatever might be behind this sudden announcement – and we'll probably never know, considering FIFA's totally opaque modus operandi – it could prove an immense boon to FOX. The United States had been inexplicably and controversially snubbed as the host for the 2022 World Cup but is expected to make a run at the 2026 edition. The U.S. would be considered an early favorite.
Should it be chosen to host, FOX would be sitting on the rights to one of the most valuable television properties in American sports history.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.