COMMENTARY | It was a little less two years ago when I was speaking with an insider at a Manhattan soccer pub. "A new station is coming," this individual told me, "and it's going to change the way we watch the sport in the United States."
That then-unnamed channel, we eventually learned, was beIN Sport, the current US TV home of La Liga, Serie A, the Russian Football Premier League, the Football League Championship and multiple other competitions.
The company celebrated its one-year anniversary in the States this past weekend, and what a year it has been. A station that began as an online-only channel fighting to get picked up by providers is now, at the start of the 2013-14 European calendar, available in over 80 million homes in the US. What some think is merely a soccer channel and not much more is now looking to grow beyond that distinction as its second year on US TV begins.
"We want to be the best international sports network as opposed to the best international soccer network," stated Antonio Briceño, deputy managing director for beIN Sport, during a conversation we had on Monday. "We launched with soccer because those were the key properties that we had when we first launched. It's now our intention to increase non-soccer properties on both networks without every alienating our core soccer fans who originally subscribed to our stations.
"For sure, you'll be seeing more cycling, more auto racing, more rugby (Six Nations Tournament) more boxing and other properties that we are getting. At the end of the day, we want to be perceived as the best network with all of international sport and not just soccer."As with any new endeavor, beIN has gone through plenty of speed-bumps and hurdles along the way. This includes finding out how to best serve customers who pay extra to either subscribe directly to beIN Sport/beIN Sport Español or to sign up for a sports television package that includes one or both of those networks.
"The biggest thing we've learned (this past year) is that there is no way to make everybody happy," Briceño explained. "Obviously, one of the things we've learned is that the audiences, if you're talking about the core soccer audiences, they have a lot in common. They're also different in the way that they consume their sports."
Any channel attempting to achieve beIN's goals is always going to have an uphill climb in the United States. Soccer is indeed more popular in this country now than ever before, but the sport still has a long way to go before it can even be mentioned among the likes of baseball and American football. Thus, beIN has to cater to casual viewers who will hopefully turn into repeat customers without "dumbing things down" to the point that diehard fans feel insulted. It's an issue those at beIN have been aware of since day one.
"We take a lot of time and effort to make sure our analysts and commentary crews are as unbiased as possible," Briceño said. "For example, we make sure that the female presenters who appear on our shows - yes, they look nice and they look beautiful - but they know what they are talking about. They are not just there because of how they look. We made sure that we signed people who already knew about the properties that we have."
One problem facing beIN this August is that the company having the rights to so many properties has resulted in some subscribers feeling left out when it comes to live games being shown on television. Most notably, fans of the Championship have, over the past several weeks, taken to Facebook and Twitter to voice their displeasure about that league being relegated to tape-delay coverage. Briceño assured me that those complaints haven't fallen on deaf ears.
"I'm an avid reader of all of the feedback we receive on both Facebook and Twitter. I am very aware of the feelings that are out there," he told me. "People forget that every live match is a big production. It's not just taking a feed from the satellite and putting it on TV. Sometimes, those games conflict with other non-soccer properties, and we have to factor in production abilities for every weekend. It's a good problem to have because we have so many good properties, but we also have a big challenge in not going beyond our production capabilities. We are planning on increasing our coverage of the Championship on beIN Sport as much as we possibly can."
I was told that every Championship match that is part of the beIN package will be shown live via the beIN Sport Play streaming service. That service, however, is not available to all subscribers as of the posting of this piece. "Our hope and goal is that it will soon be available to any subscriber regardless of their provider," Briceño stated. "This will allow viewers to make their own programming choices (via what's available on both TV and the streaming service)."
"We understand the frustrations felt by some of the fans of the leagues we carry. We sit every week, week in and week out, and we look at all of the factors (before planning programming). I try my best to make sure that everything that airs is dictated by contractual obligations to different properties and also the desires of our subscribers."
A lack of availability in Canada has left many football fans located up north rather displeased with beIN. Briceño didn't dance around the topic when asked. "We are very keen to launch in Canada," he told me. "My top priority personally right now is to launch in Canada. We do have the application prepared and ready to go. The regulatory environment in Canada is very particular, and we need to have a sponsor to get coverage there. That's what we are working on. Yes, it's true that if you go to the (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) website, you're not going to find an application pending approval at this very moment. Before we can even apply, we first need to find a sponsor. That has proven to be more challenging than we originally expected. We are working very hard every day, and want to launch in Canada as soon as possible."
There had been some whispers throughout 2013 that beIN Sport could be interested in acquiring the TV rights of Major League Soccer, which currently airs on NBC Sports Network, as some point in the future. The thought was that beIN, financed by the Qatari Investment Fund, has the money to over-bid, if necessary, for MLS. There are also plenty of open time slots on both beIN Sport and beIN Sport en Español due to European matches wrapping up in the afternoon. It now seems, however, that such speculation may have just been that and not much more.
"In all honesty, I can tell you that I haven't looked into that," Briceño told me "You do have to remember that there is an acquisition team that deals with that sort of thing, and I don't know if they are looking into it. I haven't been informed if they are. The fact is that we want to be the best international sports channel, and MLS is a domestic league. Acquiring the league would be outside of how we are positioning ourselves."
For more, read my article published earlier this month: beIN at the beginning
Zac has been covering the USMNT, Holland, Tottenham Hotspur, New York Red Bulls, Major League Soccer and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.
- Sports & Recreation
- beIN Sport
- Football League Championship