In their infinite wisdom, NBC recently saw fit to take a good and beloved Premier League broadcast strategy and make it bad and hated by cleaving its once-unified televised and streaming services into two smaller and less satisfying parts, and charging for each separately. Turner, which recently bought Champions League broadcast rights starting with the 2018-19 season, has a similar money-grubbing plan, which will neuter Champions League coverage in the U.S. even more than NBC’s decision has done to the Premier League.
For all the problems with NBC’s new, crippled Premier League coverage, at least their televised product is still more than acceptable. On any given weekend, most of the matches that the majority of EPL fans would be most interested in watching will be found somewhere on TV. Only about one-third of the league season’s matches will be stuck behind the streaming paywall, which means for many cable-subscribing fans of the Prem, the over-the-top streaming service is a luxury rather than a necessity they need to pay for in order to follow the league.
This is not the case with Turner’s plans for the Champions League. Here’s some goober at the New York Times explaining Turner’s scheme:
Turner Broadcasting was a surprise winner earlier this year in the bidding for rights to the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s top club soccer competition. But what the company plans do with the rights may be even more surprising: Launch a stand-alone sports streaming service next year that will broadcast the vast majority of the games.
Many of the most important Champions League games, including the semifinals and final, will still be broadcast on cable television. But starting next summer, more than 80 percent of the matches will only be available to fans who pay for the new subscription service — the latest move by a media organization to monetize unused parts of a multimillion-dollar sports rights deal.
That’s right: Fox Sports’ eminently accessible strategy of consistently televising at least two Champions League matches every matchday, and allowing you to stream every other UCL match online just by logging into their website with your cable info if neither of the televised games tickle your fancy, has now been sliced all to hell.
That cable subscribers will only be able to watch 20 percent of the applicable Champions League matches on TV isn’t really the problem, since that was more or less the case with Fox’s coverage, too. The problem is that if you want to watch one of those other games, you’ll now have to pay a fee to stream them when before streaming came free—as it should—with your cable subscription. Not only does this make the cable-only option untenable as a way of following the UCL season, the over-the-top service by itself isn’t a satisfactory substitute, either.
Turner, like NBC, will not let its over-the-top subscribers stream the matches they televise. During the group stages and early knockout rounds, then, subscribers will often miss out on the big, juicy matchups Turner deigns to televise unless they subscribe to yet another service like Sling, which will allow them to watch games on Turner TV stations on their desktops at work. Nor will they be able to stream the later rounds of the knockout stages like the semifinals and the final. Thus, the over-the-top service has the appearance of being a good way for cord cutters to get the soccer they crave, but in reality is just another way to charge extra by compelling any serious fan to stump up for multiple services.
The specifics of Turner’s plans are even worse:
Of the 340 annual Champions League and Europa League matches that Turner acquired — games that have become a midweek afternoon staple for American fans — only about 60 will appear on television, mostly on truTV. The semifinals and finals of the Champions League will air on either TNT or TBS, as will the Europa League final.
Through the Champions League group stage in the fall, Turner will televise four matches a week — two each on Tuesday and Wednesday, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Eastern time. Beginning with the knockout stage in February, Turner will televise two matches a week, one each on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Look at this horseshit! Group stage matches and even the semifinals and the final will be shown only on channels like truTV and TNT, which means that those hoping to go the stream-only route won’t be able to catch the biggest games of the season without ponying up twice one way or another. And for the TV-only crowd, Turner’s decision to only show a single game each matchday during the knockout rounds practically guarantees that they will miss out on some critical, competitive Round of 16 and quarterfinals matches and instead will have settle for whatever Turner’s bean-counters think will get the most ratings and thus will decide to televise.
That’s probably the biggest problem here—the matches Turner will and will not choose to air. It’s safe to predict that Turner’s match selection hierarchy will look something like this: 1) show the game that involves an English team; 2) pick the one in which Barcelona or Real Madrid play; 3) choose the one with another big-name club like Juventus or Bayern Munich; and 4) air whichever match looks to be the most competitive on paper. By constraining access to all their matches so stringently, Turner is sure to fail to cater to the desires of a huge number of fans.
If you’re a fan of a team outside England, even if it’s a big club like Bayern, you can be sure you’ll miss out on at least a couple of your squad’s games as Turner favors ones involving big British and Spanish teams. If you root for an even smaller club that nonetheless usually finds its way pretty deep into the competition—Benfica, say—then you might as well start saving up for the streaming service now, because your boys definitely won’t be getting on TV very often. And if you don’t have a particular horse in the race and would prefer to just watch the best match on offer, you’re going to find yourself shaking your head in disgust as some boring Manchester United vs. Ludogorets match bumps the Atlético Madrid vs. Napoli game that will obviously be the better spectacle. Viewer choice is critical in the Champions League, and starting next season Turner will have nearly eliminated it entirely unless you pay their ransom.
Just like with NBC’s restrictive EPL coverage, it’s unclear whether Turner is making the right call here even in terms of their own bottom line. It might be economically prudent to squeeze all the juice out of the limited number of soccer super-fans who will have to pay the company twice in order to get all the soccer they want, but maybe it’s smarter to flood the growing market of diehard and casual soccer fans with as much product as possible so as to build a broader consumer base. All we know is that this is definitely a trend, and for fans, it’s a trend that fucking blows.