We’ve had a good, long run together now. I’ve been watching your competitions for more than quarter of a century. I’ve been watching so long I actually remember the catastrophically named Cup Winners’ Cup, a competition few people cared about featuring the winners of other competitions few people cared about. It was fun! I’ve watched the UEFAs Cup and League. I’ve watched the Champions League go from a format with two knockout stages on either side of a group stage to a full group stage and, briefly, two group stages.
All the while, I’ve loyally devoured it all.
But lately, you’ve been making it hard to watch. Not just for me, but for the entire North American market. Three years ago, you sold the Canadian Champions League rights to DAZN, a streaming platform. DAZN now charges $20 a month for a subscription. That’s $20 each month that your viewers need to pay just to access your games, and that’s typically on top of cable bills that tend to run north of $100 a month.
In the United States, meanwhile, you once had a broadcaster, FOX (full disclosure: I worked for FOX Sports at the time), that put at least two live games on simultaneously for both Champions League and Europa League matchdays. It often aired three or four games live across its different channels and regional networks. Then you signed a deal with a broadcaster that didn’t bother to put the Europa League on TV at all, except for the final. TNT showed just one Champions League game live on most matchdays and relegated the Europa League to its choppy, buggy streaming app, B/R Live. The latter cost $10 a month.
Now that TNT has flaked out on the final year of its three-year Champions League contract, as well as the ongoing balance of its second season, your rights have been punted over to CBS, the new broadcaster stepping in early. CBS aired the first two days of Champions League games — albeit just one live game at a time — on its CBS Sports Network but will, again, put everything else but the final of the current season on its streaming platform, priced at $6 a month. And instead of airing the Champions League quarterfinals, CBS Sports Network will be simulcasting the “Tiki and Tierney” sports talk radio show. Except for Saturday, when it will show GT auto racing.
When the Champions League quarterfinals kick off on Wednesday, anybody without the money or capability to stream those games will miss out. That is, if they want to watch with commentary in English.
Next season promises more of the same. A game, maybe two, on cable, and everything else on the app.
The more popular soccer becomes in the United States and the more it becomes ingrained in the sports culture, the more expensive and difficult it has become to watch. Most people still have cable TV packages; for all the hype about cord-cutting, fewer than a quarter of American households have moved entirely to streaming. And those people are being asked to pay extra to watch more than one game, or see their favorite teams if they miss the cut for the broadcast that week. You’re also asking them to jump through more technological hoops.
It’s fairly evident why this is the case. Turner, TNT’s parent company, paid you about $60 million per season, reportedly a good deal more than FOX paid, which in turn had outbid ESPN, the previous Champions League broadcaster. CBS and Univision will pay a combined $150 million. Since Univision paid $35 million a year under its last deal, it stands to reason that CBS will pay the bulk of that amount, and likely much more than Turner did. Perhaps as much as the $100 million that you, UEFA, once said you wanted the American market to generate.
But in flogging your rights to the highest bidder, you have also thrown up significant barriers to entry for the consumers of your product. By leaving a channel that’s included in most every cable package for expensive streaming packages, you are actively shrinking your potential market and viewership. On some level, those broadcasters can’t be blamed for trying to recoup portions of the rapidly increasing rights deals by selling more streaming subscriptions. And none of this is to say that they were bad homes for those competitions. TNT tried to put a fresh, modern spin on its broadcasts — a laudable effort, even if results were mixed. The early results from CBS suggest that it will go big with its studio shows, hiring a raft of household names to crowd the analysts’ desk.
The thing is, UEFA, you have agency here. In competitive bidding situations, which all of these reportedly have been, you set the terms. You could have demanded that every matchday would air on cable television in English, or indeed that multiple matches are aired. (FIFA does this for the World Cup rights.) You could have taken better care of the Europa League, whose importance you are diminishing by treating it as an afterthought in rights negotiations.
By seeking to drive up the price of the rights, you have managed to also cannibalize the value of the product. CBS takes over a Europa League that fewer people have watched in the last two seasons than beforehand because it was hard for them to watch. Whenever CBS’s reign airing your competitions ends, there’s every possibility that overall viewership has been trending downward for several consecutive years.
These are self-inflicted wounds. You have chosen revenue over visibility and accessibility. You have knowingly — because surely you must know this — picked a few million extra dollars over a few million extra viewers. I don’t know what the long-term ramifications of your strategy will be, assuming there is a strategy, but reducing your consumers’ access to your product tends to be a bad idea.
The next time you sell your North American rights, I would maybe think harder about your actual customers and how you’re serving them.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More from Yahoo Sports: