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History of the UEFA Champions League on Television (Part 1)

Summary

The UEFA Champions League has in recent years become one of the hottest television property in the United States. The new television rights cycle that starts for the 2021-22 competition reportedly is worth $160 million a year in the US. […]

The UEFA Champions League has in recent years become one of the hottest television property in the United States. The new television rights cycle that starts for the 2021-22 competition reportedly is worth $160 million a year in the US. CBS Sports and Univision will share the broadcasting rights, with CBS Sports provides English language broadcasts and Univision provides Spanish broadcasting the matches. Recent interest in the Champions League on US TV began since the early days of coverage when the competition was basically a throwaway on ESPN’s programming schedule.

In this article, we will briefly introduce the history of the UEFA Champions League on US TV:

ESPN

ESPN’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League was poor during the 1990’s. At the time, interest in live televised soccer was limited and ESPN had yet to improve the plethora of daytime internally-produced “talking head shows” they now own. So the Champions League was aired without much fanfare or promotion.

Despite the lack of promotion and general interest, the competition did allow ESPN the right to broadcast live sports programming rather than a repeat of the previous night’s domestic sporting match which was often what ESPN would do in the days before 24/7 SportsCenter and the establishment of in-house studio shows.

After Liverpool’s epic 2005 comeback in Istanbul competing against AC Milan and Barcelona’s 2006 triumph, ESPN found greater value in the tournament. Starting with the 2006-2007 competition, ESPN started airing more matches live, using its ESPN Classic secondary channel as a channel to broadcast additional matches not aired on ESPN.

ESPN’s lead commentators Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth became popular household names for soccer fans not just in the US, but wherever ESPN had the international rights to air the Champions League in English. The development of ESPN Deportes on the Spanish Language side happened during this period.

For soccer fans in the US, Champions League football on ESPN was a natural event. Therefore it came as a massive shock in the Spring of 2009 when FOX Sports, recognized mostly to soccer fans for its low budget broadcasting of the Premier League, won the US rights to broadcast in both English and Spanish.