Turner Broadcasting System’s US$180 million deal for the US rights to European soccer’s top two club competitions, the Uefa Champions League and Uefa Europa League, sent something of a shockwave through the American sports media landscape when it was first reported in February. Here was a broadcaster that had not aired soccer programming in any form for the best part of three decades, of course, so a pricey play for some of the most coveted live rights going raised eyebrows to say the least.
But acquiring those rights, as it turns out, was only half the story. Thursday’s confirmation of the deal was met with yet more surprise as Turner, the owner of Bleacher Report, used the announcement as the launchpad for its latest venture: a standalone, Netflix-style sports streaming service to be rolled out in 2018 and initially built around soccer, including 80 per cent of the matches bundled within its three-year Uefa contract.
“The launch of Turner’s new OTT sports platform and partnership with Uefa aligns with the company’s continued strategy to further expand the distribution ecosystem and our ongoing commitment to engage fans with premium content they crave across all platforms," said Turner president David Levy (left).
Turner’s latest move, which comes on the heels of similar OTT plays announced by ESPN parent Disney as well as NBC and CBS, adds another wealthy player to the increasingly crowded US sports streaming marketplace, not to mention a hearty helping of A-grade soccer. Now, it will be all eyes on the networks to see who blinks first on pricing.
Elsewhere in soccer, the United Bid Committee has named its long-list of cities and venues under consideration to host matches at the 2026 Fifa World Cup. A total of 49 stadiums located in or around 44 cities across the United States, Mexico and Canada have been asked to declare their interest to enter the bid by 5th September, ahead of Fifa’s 16th March deadline for formal proposals.
The United bid, which will now go up against Morocco for the right to stage the 2026 tournament, plans to include between 20 and 25 venues in its final proposal, with at least 12 locations serving as official host cities. It is anticipated that all three of Mexico’s candidate cities - Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara - will be chosen, along with three from seven being proposed in Canada, leaving the US, which will host 60 of the tournament’s expanded slate of 80 matches, to provide the remaining venues, many of which house teams in the National Football League (NFL).
Speaking of the NFL, the league and its Players’ Association, the NFLPA, have been trading public blows this week following the NFL’s decision to suspend Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for five games over domestic violence allegations. Both parties issued strongly worded statements on Wednesday condemning each other’s handling of the issue, which came to a head as NFL teams stepped up their pre-season preparations.
Further fraying already fraught relations, the NFL accused the NFLPA of "spreading derogatory information” about Tiffany Thompson, Elliott’s accuser, prompting the players’ union to quickly respond with an emphatic statement in which it rubbished the league’s accusation as “a lie”.
The public statement issued on behalf of every NFL owner is a lie. The NFLPA categorically denies the accusations made in this statement. pic.twitter.com/OFOGQY91Ai— NFLPA (@NFLPA) August 16, 2017
The latest clash over player discipline comes in a week in which NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told Sports Illustrated that “the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout is almost a virtual certainty” when the league's current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires in 2021. “We have a new deal where if it doesn't get fixed, you head into a certain 'small-a' Armageddon,” warned Smith. Expect to hear plenty more on that in due course.
In baseball, meanwhile, one of the messiest franchise sales in recent memory looks to have finally come to an end after a group of investors led by New York businessman Bruce Sherman and including retired Yankees star Derek Jeter agreed a deal to buy the Miami Marlins from Jeffrey Loria for US$1.2 billion.
Sherman, a venture capitalist, will be the control person in the new ownership group while Jeter (right), who has been linked with a takeover of the Marlins for several months and is said to be contributing US$25 million to the deal, will run the team’s business and baseball operations - a condition of the purchase agreement supposedly sought by Loria. Now all that remains for the sale to go through is Major League Baseball (MLB) approval, which is expected to come by the end of the current season in October.
In other news, prominent figures and organisations from across the sporting world have been speaking out in the wake of last weekend’s violent protests in Virginia. As Saturday’s events unfolded on the streets of Charlottesville and on social media, the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League (NHL) said they were “exploring every possible legal action” after it emerged one nationalist group calling themselves the ‘Detroit Right Wings’ had used a modified version of the team’s logo during the demonstrations.
On Monday, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank joined other high-profile chief executives in stepping down from Donald Trump's since-disbanded manufacturing job council after the commander-in-chief initially failed to denounce the myriad far-right groups involved in the rallies. The following day, basketball star turned outspoken social activist LeBron James called out “the so-called president of the United States” for his botched response, claiming Trump had made hate “fashionable again”. “The only way for us to get better as a society is love,” said the Cleveland Cavaliers star.
Also this week: USA Track & Field (USATF) is teaming up with UK Athletics to stage a new one-day event, dubbed ‘The Meet’, in London next July; the Atlanta Hawks have signed the NBA’s 13th jersey patch sponsorship, bringing on board digital healthcare company Sharecare; and Monumental Sports & Entertainment has named its first-ever esports director.